Across America, there are pockets of poverty, communities that have been left behind or deprived of the basics needed to develop, like Pembroke Township, a small community south of Chicago along the Indiana border. In this community, one-third of the families live below the poverty line. It is one of the poorest communities in the country, with a median income that is among the lowest.
In the 1860s, newly freed slaves — freedmen — settled into the rich farmland of the region. It was a land of promise and opportunity. During the Great Migration and the Great Depression, waves of black farmers settled here. Land was still available for black farms in part because much of it was seen as marginal. The land is so bad, the joke became, as Rev. Hezekiah Brady Jr. reported, “you can’t raise hell on it.” Today, the residents of Pembroke Township are denied the hope that their ancestors once held. In Pembroke, residents lack heat and access to basic necessities.
They are the victims of economic violence in many ways. They can’t develop basic infrastructure without capital investment. Investment won’t come without basic infrastructure. They face a catch-22 all too familiar to poor communities in this country. In recent months, this has begun to change for the 2,100 residents of Pembroke. Wi-Fi has come to the community. Now Nicor Gas is joining with local officials trying to work out a plan to bring natural gas to Pembroke. A secure source of energy would help kick-start other development — and in turn create jobs and generate hope.
To bring energy to Pembroke will require regulatory changes, millions in investment and support from the business community, the residents of Pembroke, the state of Illinois and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nicor has made a serious commitment. Now it is time to turn up the heat on the others to ensure that the residents of Pembroke have heat. Dr. Martin Luther King always envisioned the civil rights struggle in three different movementsi or phases. First would come basic civil rights, the end of segregation. The Supreme Court and the Civil Rights Act of 1965 helped achieve that. Then came political rights: The Voting Rights Act helped move toward that.
It wasn’t just African Americans who profited, but women, young people and other minorities all made great strides to equal justice. The final movement, which Dr. King knew would be the most difficult, was the movement for economic justice. Sadly, the war on poverty that was making great strides was lost in the jungles of Vietnam, and then abandoned under Ronald Reagan in 1980. Now, as America suffers extreme inequality, a declining life expectancy, rising deaths of despair — from alcohol, or drugs or suicide — we need a new push for economic justice.
It should focus on the pockets of poverty like Pembroke. It must engage the efforts of private enterprise and public and private resources. Keystone legislation like that proposed by Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) that would target federal spending to the communities that have been mired in poverty for decades, joining the urban and the rural poor, across regional and racial lines, as the focus for new energy and new hope. What’s clear is that our current course won’t do it. Unemployment is low, but poor urban and rural communities still have not recovered. Communities like Pembroke won’t recover without focused energy. As Dr. King taught us, that will happen only if citizens organize and lead the way.