In The Ghetto, Not Much Has Changed in 50 Years

Fifty years ago next month, Elvis Presley launched his comeback with the help of some amazing songs from Hall of Fame songwriter Mac Davis. I wrote the bulk of this piece back in September of 2016. Originally, it was just as a post on my personal Facebook page. I go back and read over those posts from time to time, sometimes marveling at what has changed; sometimes voicing frustration at what has not.

I had recently returned from a trip to the United Kingdom and was only a few months away from proposing to the woman who is now my wife. And I was so damn sure that in just over six weeks Hillary Rodham Clinton would be elected America’s 45th president, and our first female president. There is an old Yiddish saying, “Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht” which translates to, “Man Plans, God Laughs.”

I have shared this post in several outlets since it was first crafted, and I leave it mostly alone, as I worry that changing too much might alter the way I felt when I wrote it. Each time I share this, though, I do make necessary tweaks. When I reference how long ago something was, that sort of thing. And if something was pending or in progress that is now resolved, like the trial of Officer Betty Jo Shelby for the murder of Terrance Crutcher, I close the storyline. You can find those updates in bold type.


Yesterday, I was flipping through the stations on Sirius/XM and came across In The Ghetto on the Elvis channel. What I found most striking is the lyrics could have been written TODAY instead of 50 years ago.

Poverty. Hunger. Hopelessness. Anger. Frustration. Guns. Crime.

A senseless death, face-down in the street.

This was the life story for so many black, male children born in America in the 1960’s.

This is the life story for so many black, male children born in America in the 2000’s.

RELATED: Breaking the Chains Linking Felon Disenfranchisement and Racism

Yes, as a nation, as a people, America has come far in five decades. Just over 50 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act seeking to finally offer people of color the same opportunities to exercise their right to vote as whites had long enjoyed. Today, America’s first black President is nearing the completion of his second term. (UPDATE: Republicans spent much of 2017 and 2018 chipping away at the protections of the Voting RIghts Act.)

That matters.

That shows progress.

But too often the very policies designed to make the country one united body of states instead end up building bigger walls to divide us.

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs Board of Education that the Topeka, Kansas public schools could no longer be segregated by race. Problem fixed, right? A little redistricting. Maybe some busing. Implement the ruling and the problem goes away. Sure, until the rich white kids fled to private schools or academies and the middle class white kids fled to the suburbs leaving the inner-city schools even MORE segregated than they were in the 1950’s AND now lacking the tax base necessary to be successful.

There is a scene in the 1996 film Ghosts of Mississippi that has always reminded me of how close we still are as Americans to the terrible old days of segregation. Well, there are several scenes in that amazing film, but the one I am referring to has Bobby DeLaughter (Alec Baldwin) heading to the bathroom during a break in the trial. The faint letters WHITES ONLY can still be seen on the bathroom door, clearly either having been scraped off or painted over, but not GONE. Never gone. The point is, it takes only a few seconds to scrape letters off a door, or to paint over them, but to those who look closely (and who know where to look) it is STILL there. It will ALWAYS be there, just under the surface. Like the racism which led to exclusion being labeled on the door in the first place.

Real change takes generations, not seconds. And even then…

Also relevant is a conversation that takes place in that bathroom between DeLaughter (the Assistant District Attorney) and Byron De La Beckwith (James Woods) regarding the murder De La Beckwith is charged with committing. DeLaughter accuses De La Beckwith of hunting civil rights leader Medgar Evers down, “like a deer.” De La Beckwith’s reply: “A deer, Mr. DeLaughter, is a beautiful animal. It’s one of God’s creatures. I would never kill a deer. A nigger, on the other hand, that’s another matter entirely.”

The complete lack of respect for people of color, the core belief that black people are not human but rather animals to be caged or hunted, that they are not as valuable as white people, that they should either behave and obey or they get put down like a dog gone rabid, while that has been overcome in the hearts of many it still exists today as well.

RELATED: It Feels Like Open Season on Black Men in America…Again.

Terrence Crutcher was gunned-down by a police officer in Tulsa this week. Would a white man have suffered the same fate? Will there be a penalty? Today, the officer involved (Betty Jo Shelby) has been charged in his death, so time will tell. (UPDATE: On May 17, 2017, a jury found Officer Shelby not guilty of first-degree manslaughter. In March 2018, Stephon Clark, another unarmed black man was killed by Sacramento officers Terrance Mercadal and  Jared Robinet. On March 5, 2019 California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced no charges would be filed against either officer.)

Those involved in the Freddie Gray case in Baltimore went free.

Keith Scott was gunned-down by a police officer in Charlotte. A North Carolina Congressman said this of the resulting protests’ “Charlotte protesters hate white people, because white people are successful.” This is a UNITED STATES CONGRESSMAN for heaven’s sake. This is not some fringe lunatic. This is not Byron De La Beckwith. This man helps MAKE the rules of society. He helps decide who GETS and who GETS SCREWED. There is no apology needed. I am glad he deleted the post, but in the internet age that matters not. He MUST resign. His fellow Republican in Congress must censure him and take every step in their power to force his resignation. No, this is NOT for the voters of his district to decide. I don’t care if his constituents are racist assholes and they WANT to be represented by a racist asshole. (UPDATE: In 2019, Americans find themselves expressing the same frustration with Iowa Congressman Steve King.)

We as a society MUST stop being OK with that. Yes, you have free speech, the very first right the Founders gave you. But that does not preclude me from shouting you down when you spout your hate. That does not mean his fellow Republicans have to give him a single seat on a committee, or bring a single piece of his legislation up for a vote, or allocate a single dollar to his district above what is legally mandated. Good people stood up against the Bathroom Law North Carolina passed. Tens of millions of dollars have been pulled from North Carolina and will now go elsewhere. Maybe they will finally repeal it once they suffer enough? (UPDATES: Congressman Robert Pittenger lost the Republican primary in 2018 to Mark Harris, who faced Democrat Dan McCready in the general election. The outcome was never certified due to election fraud by Harris. A new election has been ordered. The North Carolina bathroom bill was replaced in 2017, although the replacement is still facing legal challenges.)

RELATED: 35 Ways Donald Trump Has Damaged America

And then there are people like Kathy Miller, who was (until her resignation this week) working for the Donald Trump presidential campaign in Ohio. Some of her quotes:

“If you’re black and you haven’t been successful in the last 50 years, it’s your own fault. You’ve had every opportunity, it was given to you,” she said.

Really, for the last 50 years blacks have been afforded the SAME opportunities as whites? I assume Ms. Miller (and I do not want to put words in her mouth, but…) must figure the blacks are in the position they are in because they are stupid, inferior, lazy, and do not want to better themselves?

“You’ve had the same schools everybody else went to. You had benefits to go to college that white kids didn’t have. You had all the advantages and didn’t take advantage of it. It’s not our fault, certainly.”

Again, really? Same schools? Better opportunity to go to college than the white kids? Just failed to take advantage of the opportunities like the white folks did. And I love how she feels the need to defend white people.

“It’s not OUR fault, certainly. I don’t think there was any racism until Obama got elected. We never had problems like this … Now, with the people with the guns, and shooting up neighborhoods, and not being responsible citizens, that’s a big change, and I think that’s the philosophy that Obama has perpetuated on America.”

Yes, she almost has a point there in the first sentence. Until Barack Obama became President, most hateful people like Kathy Miller stayed out of sight, stayed hidden under rocks, felt no need to spout hatred and to join white-power groups. They stayed silent and hidden because they knew there were consequences. Until then, people like Kathy Miller lived secluded lives among their white friends and they were SURE that despite 50 years of those opportunities given to blacks, white people were still winning and still controlled everything and black people still knew their place.

Poverty. Hunger. Hopelessness. Anger. Frustration. Guns. Crime.

That is really what Kathy Miller is talking about when she describes America’s mostly black inner-cities.

That is the reality Mac Davis wrote about (and Elvis Presley sang about) nearly 50 years ago.

A lot has changed in 50 years, but damn, a lot has not.

Here are the lyrics:

As the snow flies

On a cold and gray Chicago mornin’

A poor little baby child is born

In the ghetto

And his mama cries

‘Cause if there’s one thing that she don’t need

It’s another hungry mouth to feed

In the ghetto

People, don’t you understand

The child needs a helping hand

Or he’ll grow to be an angry young man some day

Take a look at you and me,

Are we too blind to see?

Do we simply turn our heads and look the other way?

Well, the world turns

And a hungry little boy with a runny nose

Plays in the street as the cold wind blows

In the ghetto

And his hunger burns

So he starts to roam the streets at night

And he learns how to steal, and he learns how to fight

In the ghetto

Then one night in desperation

The young man breaks away

He buys a gun, Steals a car, Tries to run, But he don’t get far

And his mama cries

As a crowd gathers ’round an angry young man

Face down on the street with a gun in his hand

In the ghetto

And as her young man dies,

On a cold and gray Chicago mornin’,

Another little baby child is born In the ghetto

And his mama cries

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