“I just want to help somebody’s child go to college” Oseola McCarty, recipient of 1995 Presidential Citizens Medal
The Black “Twittersphere” and “blogosphere” are abuzz with talk about ways to engage more African Americans in the “Occupy” movement. There are even social networks forming under the banner: “Occupy the Hood.” From Zuccotti Park in Manhattan to Westlake Park in Seattle, the participants in Occupy events tend to be overwhelmingly young, white, and middle class. This is the case even though the ills the Occupy Movement have identified -- income inequality and the corrupt and predatory actions of big banks – are hitting communities of color the hardest.
In pondering the potential reasons for this disconnect, I thought that maybe the stress of unemployment and lack of opportunities are so draining in the “hood” that there simply isn’t enough time or energy to join a rally. Or maybe with more of a focus on racism’s role in structural inequality more people of color would join. But then I thought about a woman named Oseola McCarty from Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
In 1995 at the age of 85, Ms. McCarty, an African American woman who earned a living washing and ironing other people’s laundry, donated her entire life-savings, $150,000, to the University of Southern Mississippi to give black children the chance she never had to attend the previously segregated university. Her actions inspired many and led President Clinton to award her the Presidential Citizens Medal. Osceola McCarty’s only wish was that she be allowed to attend the graduation of the first recipient of the McCarty Scholarship. She developed a friendship with that student, Stephanie Bullock, and died a few months after Stephanie’s graduation in 1999.
I tell that story because it reminds us of the legacy of community service and philanthropy that have always been at the heart of the black community. There is no way we could have survived the hardships of slavery, Jim Crow, the Great Depression and the Great Recession without leaning on one another – whether that meant assisting travellers on the Underground Railroad, or sharing food with an out-of-work neighbor. Giving back has always been front and center in the African American experience.
The Black church has led the way. Community “Giving Circles,” where individuals collectively pool their resources and decide what projects to fund, are on the rise. And for years, philanthropic organizations such as the National Urban League, National Black United Fund and the United Negro College Fund, have been providing critical and in some cases, life-saving, assistance to millions of African Americans. A new generation of African American philanthropists is also making a difference – people like Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, and Alphonse Fletcher are empowering the most vulnerable to dream and create better tomorrows.
As we enter the holiday season, we should draw strength from that well-spring of compassion. And we should remember, while public protest has its place, these African Americans that have walked through the doors of opportunity and achieved economic success have an absolute responsibility to make a difference, and to give back. Neither do you have to be a college graduate. And giving back can be in the form of time and talent as well as money. Occupy the Hood with whatever gifts you have. As Oseola McCarty put it, “If you want to be proud of yourself, you have got to do things you can be proud of.”
Marc Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League.