A black neighborhood’s complicated relationship with the home of Preakness Baltimore’s storied horse race faces an uncertain future in the city

In Northwest Baltimore’s Park Heights neighborhood, more than 100,000 people are expected to gather Saturday to watch the 144th Preakness Stakes at the rundown Pimlico Race Course.

However, few residents of this depressed, low-income and largely black community will be attending the second leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. But for generations, they have made extra cash allowing race fans to park on their front lawns and selling cooked food or trinkets from their stoops. Corner stores and carryout spots have charged fans anywhere from $5 to $20 just to use the bathroom. Even the drug dealers clean up on Preakness Day.

“The white folks come up here once a year to gamble and get drunk. Some of them come across the street and buy a little weed or some crack. The police just sit there and don’t do nothin’ because they get paid off by the corner boys to look the other way,” said 51-year-old Ray Johnson, who grew up in the neighborhood. “When the race is over, they get outta here before it gets dark. They don’t give a f— about this neighborhood until the next year.”

Park Heights is one of several Baltimore neighborhoods where gun violence is endemic. But residents here also have concerns about whether the city will continue with its revitalization plan demolishing unsightly and deteriorating buildings – or even the racetrack. And they are not alone in pondering the possibility of this home to horse racing being torn down, and its signature event – the Preakness – being moved to Laurel Park racetrack midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Eight miles away from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, where businesses have struggled to attract tourists since the city’s Freddie Gray uprising in 2015, bright yellow hydraulic excavators rest their arms and dirt-caked bucket lips on vacant lots along Park Heights Avenue. They’ve ripped through arched windows, gnawed out rotted beams, and scooped up brick foundations from boarded vintage row homes and dilapidated businesses built many decades ago.

Melvin Ward, the 58-year-old owner of Kaylah’s Soul Food restaurant, came to Park Heights with his family when he was 5. “I saw this neighborhood when there were no black people here. My family was one of two black families in this neighborhood. It’s gone far down since then. I don’t think the neighborhood will get worse if they move the Preakness to Laurel,” Ward said.

Until the Martin Luther King Jr. riots of 1968 combined with a mass exodus of whites and professional blacks to the suburbs, this was a largely close-knit Jewish neighborhood with thriving specialty shops, synagogues and Hebrew schools, and homeowners who swept the alleys. The entire stretch of Park Heights, from Park Circle to Pimlico, quickly transformed racially from almost entirely white to largely African American.

In 1947, Life magazine declared that horse racing was “the most gigantic racket since Prohibition.” An estimated 26 million people went to the tracks at that time. Big races attracted all kinds, from nuns to black numbers runners to then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who traveled from Washington, D.C., to Pimlico on Saturdays in a bulletproof limousine.

Along Park Heights Avenue, decades of divestment and a grim litany of urban problems are evident. But the sites won’t be captured for television audiences on Preakness Day. Viewers won’t see the dumped mattresses, tires and garbage on desolate blocks, the high concentration of liquor stores and convenience shops. Nor will they see the hollowed-eyed, gaunt drug addicts lurking along the sidewalks or nodding off at bus stops.

The 5100 block of Park Heights Ave is the closest thoroughfare to the race track. The area is in need of investment and redevelopment, and many shops are vacant or boarded up. The Preakness has not brought any significant opportunity to the area over the years.

André Chung for The Undefeated

Residents here joke that most viewers outside Baltimore probably have no clue that the Preakness happens “in the middle of the ‘hood” instead of beautiful horse country.

If you stand at the corner of Park Heights and West Belvedere avenues, you can see there’s a commercial district neighboring the track where the Preakness has been held since 1873. There’s detritus and despair, thick veils of cigarette smoke, the smell of liquor and urine heavy in the air.

Over the past few months, the Canadian-based Stronach Group, which owns and operates Pimlico, has been locked in a feud with city officials over Pimlico’s future. It has become increasingly clear that Stronach wants to move the Preakness from Baltimore and tap $80 million in state funds to build an upscale “supertrack” in Laurel Park, where it has invested a significant amount of money.

City officials want to revitalize Pimlico and keep the Preakness, but a study conducted by the Maryland Stadium Authority estimated that it would cost more than $400 million to rebuild the racetrack.

Tim Ritvo, Stronach’s COO, indicated that Pimlico is “at the end of its useful life” and is no longer a safe and viable site for the Preakness. Baltimore filed a lawsuit alleging that Stronach “systematically under-invested in Pimlico” while pouring most of the state funds it receives into improving the Laurel Park facility. Former Mayor Catherine Pugh, who recently resigned over financial improprieties, argued a rotting, unsafe race complex helps the company justify moving the Preakness from Baltimore.

Track workers prepare the track for the two weeks of racing to come as Preakness nears on the calendar. Pimlico race track is falling apart and the owners would rather take the historic race out of Baltimore than repair it. But who is left behind? The black community that surrounds Pimlico.

André Chung for The Undefeated

In mid-April, proposals to finance improvements at Laurel Park were debated and failed in the Maryland General Assembly. Stuck in an unfortunate status quo with no real agreement on how to move forward, Baltimore’s new mayor, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, is expected to continue Pugh’s efforts to fix Pimlico and build a new hotel and grocery store for the community.

Local media coverage has indicated that popular bars and restaurants in areas such as Federal Hill, Towson and Fells Point would feel the pain if the Preakness leaves. They’ve raised bigger questions: Does the wider racing world care if the race is moved out of Baltimore? Does the Preakness have to stay in the city for it to retain its cachet? In all this debate, missing from the conversation are black voices, which reveal a deeper story about the social costs of sports as America’s inner cities are struggling to reimagine themselves by using sports stadiums to spur economic growth and demographic change.

The fate of Pimlico as home to the Preakness and as a racetrack is also balanced against the views of its African American neighbors, who have seen their communities deteriorate even more over the past half-century from absentee owners, intentional neglect, the war on drugs, and other failed local and national American policies.

Do the people of Park Heights really care about keeping the track — perhaps the area’s only surviving historic landmark and focal point? Would Pimlico’s Canadian owners be so willing to leave if the surrounding neighborhood were white and middle class? Stronach Group did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.

Melvin Ward, who grew up in the Park Heights neighborhood near Pimlico, is the owner of Kaylah’s Soul Food near the race track.

André Chung for The Undefeated

A number of residents like to put on their conspiratorial hat when they talk about what’s happened to the racetrack. Many residents believe that the owners let the track rot to justify a move to Laurel Park. The conditions at Pimlico symbolize how the city has neglected black communities for decades, and they see letting Pimlico and the rest of the neighborhood die as the start of gentrification.

Most people here halfway accept that the Preakness might leave Park Heights. “They’re moving it to Laurel. Period!” declared Roderick Barnette, a 56-year-old resident of Park Heights.

The question is: What then? How will the site be used? Would Sinai Hospital on one side of Pimlico obtain some of the land if it becomes available? If any of the land is redeveloped for housing, would it be affordable, market rate or a combination?

“Pimlico is not a sign of life for this neighborhood,” Ward said. “Horse racing is dead. The Preakness does nothing for the community. If it leaves, things will be the same as they always are here.”

Andrae Scott, 37, whose father owns Judy’s Caribbean Restaurant, on Park Heights Avenue across from the track, said white people come through not to buy food but to use the bathroom, which they are charged for, since many come in drunk and vomit. “They’re already pushing black folks out of the area. You can already see them knocking down houses and tearing up streets,” Scott said.

Fears of gentrification and displacement are legitimate. Baltimore ranks fifth among cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Washington, San Diego and Chicago for the highest rate of gentrification and displacement of people from 2000 to 2013, according to a recent study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

Some residents want the Preakness to stay. Prince Jeffrey, 28, is a Nigerian immigrant working at the EZ Shop directly across from the racetrack. On Preakness Day, his store can make upward of $2,000, versus his daily average of $600, with sales of junk food, chips, water and crates of juices. “I think they should leave it. Development would make the whole area better. If they move the track, this place will go down,” Jeffrey said.

LaDonna Jones, 53, believes that Pimlico’s owners have sabotaged it to have an excuse to leave. “Some other tracks across the country have live racing from now until late fall. This track runs races for two weeks for the Preakness. They don’t try to get any additional business.”

Jones noted that there have been efforts to arrange concerts there, but the number of outside events has declined — Pimlico is not seen as a welcoming place.

LaDonna Jones owns property near the track. Her cousin, Roderick Barnette helps her take care of it. Their views differ on whether or not the track should close. Jones wants it to stay but wants to see reinvestment into the community and Barnette would rather see it go because it’s never benefitted the community.

André Chung for The Undefeated

Her friend Roderick Barnette, who is convinced that the track will be closed, said, “There’s no money here. This is a drug haven. White people come here once a year, they gamble, make their money and get the hell out. In Laurel, they can make more money because there’s more white people. I’m just keeping it real.”

When Jones suggests that “they can revitalize here,” Barnett interrupts. “This is Park Heights! This is a black neighborhood! They’re gonna get rid of all these black people around here just like Johns Hopkins did downtown.”

Jones concedes while noting that “this racetrack matters to black folks here. It’s part of their life and the way they’ve always lived. They look forward to the races. They make a little quick money. If it shuts down, Pimlico will be just another vacant building and another eyesore for Baltimore City.”

Overall, Park Heights residents seem less concerned about losing the Preakness than addressing more immediate problems of crime, poverty, broken schools, lack of retail and jobs, food deserts, poor housing, shabby services, disinvestment and endless failed urban renewal plans over the past 30 years.

Beyond the once-yearly activity and attention that come with the Preakness, Park Heights still creates a sense of possibility in the face of its challenges. Some Caribbean groceries sell fresh foods. The recent election of Baltimore City Council president Brandon Scott, who grew up in Park Heights, is seen as a sign of hope. While Park Heights is generally a hard place to live, it is a community where some decent people find joy in the face of uncertainty and believe in the spirit of the place they call home. The fate of the Preakness will have an impact, but it will not define them.

Meanwhile, the latest news is that the Preakness will stay in Baltimore another year. But beyond 2020, the future of the race remains unclear.

HBO’s new ‘Native Son’ still can’t figure out Bigger Thomas Latest adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel excises some of the crucial violence against a black woman

Nobody knows what to do with Bigger Thomas.

The lead character of Richard Wright’s seminal 1940 novel, Native Son, is one of the most frustrating in American literature. The latest evidence is a new film adaptation written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by visual artist Rashid Johnson in his feature film debut. It airs at 10 p.m. Saturday on HBO.

The Bigger Wright left us on the page is a 20-year-old black man who lives in a one-room Chicago tenement with his brother, sister and mother in 1939. In Wright’s opening scene, Bigger wakes up in the family’s freezing apartment and pounds a giant rat to death with an iron skillet. Bigger is bitterly aware of the limitations his race and class have predetermined for him, and so are his friends. They have nothing, and so they rob other black folks of their tiny bit of something. Bigger seems doomed to a small, miserable life until he gets a job across town as a chauffeur for a wealthy white family, the Daltons. The Daltons don’t consider themselves racists, but they benefit handsomely from the structural circumstances that have placed a boot upon Bigger’s neck.

What follows is tragic: A panicked Bigger accidentally kills the Dalton heiress, Mary, whose kindness and uninformed, if well-intentioned, habitual racial line-stepping do more to endanger Bigger than help him. After a night out with her boyfriend, Jan, Mary drunkenly invites Bigger, who’s driven her home, to her bedroom. Bigger assents, hoping to simply settle Mary in her room before stealing off to his own in the back of the house. Instead, he smothers her to death out of fear they’ll be discovered and he’ll be fired. Afterward, Bigger shoves Mary’s body into the mansion’s furnace.

When reporters discover bones and jewelry among the furnace’s ashes, Bigger flees. He explains to his girlfriend, Bessie, how he ended up killing Mary, then rapes and kills Bessie too, disposing of her body down an air shaft. When he’s finally caught, Bigger is bound for the executioner’s chair.

Needless to say, this is not a character who inspires sympathy. The HBO movie is the third attempt to bring Bigger to life on film. (In 1941, Orson Welles produced and directed the story as a play.) Wright actually starred as Bigger in a 1951 version of Native Son filmed in Argentina by the Belgian director Pierre Chenal. A 1986 version, with Victor Love as Bigger, had a big-name Hollywood cast, including Matt Dillon, Elizabeth McGovern, Geraldine Page and Oprah Winfrey.

Each of them has had to struggle with hard questions about Wright’s central character: How much of Bigger’s awfulness can be attributed to a country that twisted him into a murderer and how much of his evil is individual? Is cruelty from those denied dignity inevitable or a choice? Is Bigger a person or a literary device manufactured to inspire horror?

Nearly 80 years after Native Son was first published, we’re still searching for answers.


Ashton Sanders, as Bigger Thomas in HBO’s Native Son, stands in front of “The Bean,” a landmark public sculpture in downtown Chicago.

Chris Herr/HBO

This latest film adaptation, produced by A24 (the company behind Moonlight, Lady Bird and First Reformed) has the distinction of being the brainchild of a student of James Baldwin — Parks studied creative writing under Baldwin at Mount Holyoke College.

Baldwin famously seethed at Wright’s interpretation of black life and dismissed Native Son as a “protest novel” full of one-dimensional stereotypes, and he likened Bigger to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom.

“Bigger is Uncle Tom’s descendant, flesh of his flesh, so exactly opposite a portrait that, when the books are placed together, it seems the contemporary Negro novelist and the dead New England woman are locked together in a deadly, timeless battle; the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses,” Baldwin wrote in the essay Everybody’s Protest Novel. And yet Baldwin softened his stance toward Wright and Native Son after Wright’s death in 1960. Wrote Baldwin in Alas, Poor Richard:

Shortly after we learned of Richard Wright’s death, a Negro woman who was rereading Native Son told me that it meant more to her now than it had when she had first read it. This, she said, was because the specific social climate which had produced it, or with which it was identified, seemed archaic now, was fading from our memories. Now, there was only the book itself to deal with, for it could no longer be read, as it had been in 1940, as a militant racial manifesto. Today’s racial manifestoes were being written very differently, and in many languages; what mattered about the book now was how accurately or deeply the life of Chicago’s South Side had been conveyed.

The ambivalence Bigger inspires in Baldwin and others has come to be one of his defining characteristics. In 1986, Temple University professor David Bradley, writing an introduction for a new edition of the novel, shared his roller coaster of emotions about Native Son, which fluctuated with each new reading.

Is Bigger a person or a literary device manufactured to inspire horror? Nearly 80 years after Native Son was first published, we’re still searching for answers.

Both the 1986 film and the new one struggle with the monstrousness of Bigger’s actions — and both decided to dull them. Neither one includes Bigger’s rape and murder of Bessie. It’s the biggest omission from both versions, and especially notable in this latest adaptation, given how much Parks and Johnson elected to change.

They removed Bigger from the South Side of 1939 and dropped him into modern-day Chicago, simultaneously eradicating the bleakness of Bigger’s life as Wright fashioned it. Bigger no longer shares a one-room apartment with his mother, sister and brother but rather a multiroom unit with space for a dining table where the family gathers regularly. His mother, Trudy (Sanaa Lathan), is an ambitious paralegal eyeing law school, not a desperate washerwoman consigned to abject poverty. Trudy has a romantic partner, a do-gooder lawyer named Marty (David Alan Grier). The Thomas household is warm and structured, and there isn’t nearly as much pressure on Bigger to get a job to prevent his family from being turned out on the street.

Bigger, too, has undergone renovation. Played by Ashton Sanders (best known for portraying high school-age Chiron in Moonlight), this modern Bigger sports green hair, black fingernail polish, and an assortment of black coats and jackets customized with graffiti and patches. He’s an Afropunk and an anarchist who prefers the sounds of Bad Brains, Minor Threat and Death, as opposed to, say, Chief Keef. Sanders is tall and lanky, and he mostly plays Bigger as a quiet kid who folds into himself but who can be goaded into violent outbursts. His girlfriend, Bessie (KiKi Layne), has been transformed from a figure of pitiable, gin-soaked scorn into a sober and sensible hairdresser.

From the book to the screen, Wright’s white characters remain the most static. Mrs. Dalton is always blind, and Mr. Dalton is always the dutiful limousine liberal who sees himself as doing what he can to help the downtrodden Negroes on the other side of town. Mary Dalton (Margaret Qualley) and her boyfriend, Jan Erlone (Nick Robinson), remain a couple of rebellious anti-capitalists (here, they’re Occupy Wall Street sympathizers) thumbing their noses at Mr. Dalton’s money and privilege while simultaneously enjoying it.


Ashton Sanders and KiKi Layne in Native Son.

Thomas Hank Willis/HBO

The urge to use a new adaptation of Native Son as a corrective to the perceived faults of Wright’s original work is understandable, especially when its setting, Chicago, is repeatedly slandered as a cesspool of black cultural pathologies. Its murder rate trails that of several other cities, and yet it’s seen as an avatar for gun violence and a favorite example of those looking to deploy the whataboutism of “black-on-black” crime. Chicago is the home of Emmett Till and Laquan McDonald, and somehow also the place that produced Barack Obama and Harold Washington. Victims of white supremacy and heroes who manage to dodge it are much easier to hold in one’s head. But where do we place Bigger?

If we take him as Wright wrote him, perhaps the only appropriate place is exile. Maybe that’s why the resulting Bigger imagined by Parks and Johnson is far more sympathetic than Wright’s original rendering. For instance, Johnson neglects to show Bigger decapitating Mary once he realizes her body is too big to fully fit in the furnace. And in this modern version, Bigger never makes it to jail, much less a trial. He’s gunned down by Chicago police officers the moment they find him.

Parks and Johnson gesture at Bigger’s violence toward Bessie — he begins to strangle her but doesn’t go through with the deed. Bigger’s sexual violence, though, is completely eliminated. When I spoke to Johnson recently at HBO’s offices in New York, he told me that he thought of Bessie’s survival as the truest outcome for this retelling.

“We can’t murder and rape Bessie.”

“Between 1939 and today, stories around violence towards women and the way that we interpret them has changed dramatically,” Johnson said. “I was raised by a black woman who’s an academic and a feminist. I am not capable of telling stories where a woman is treated violently in the respect that Bigger treats Bessie in the book. That’s not something that I’m interested in.

“I think it neuters the other aspects of the story that are quite complicated around both race, class, etc. I think that it does a damage to the story and its contemporary telling, that story cannot survive. So we’d originally written it with the murder of Bessie and the rape of Bessie and the story, and I read that version in the script because we tried to keep as much in as possible in our early stages of interpreting it. And I called Suzan-Lori Parks very early in the morning and I said, ‘There’s something that is very challenging for me,’ and she said, ‘We can’t murder and rape Bessie.’ ”

Yet black and Native American women today experience the highest rates of death as a result of intimate partner violence, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wright’s Native Son, in part, is a tale of black masculinity, disfigured by white supremacy and run amok. It is a horror story, in the way that Toni Morrison’s Beloved can be seen as horror too.

In 2015, when Straight Outta Compton was released, hip-hop journalist Dee Barnes wrote about the violence she experienced at the hands of Dr. Dre. “There is a direct connection between the oppression of black men and the violence perpetrated by black men against black women,” she wrote. “It is a cycle of victimization and reenactment of violence that is rooted in racism and perpetuated by patriarchy.”

It’s impossible to separate the murder and rape of Bessie from any discussion about how race and class have victimized Bigger. The same factors contribute to Bigger’s abuse of Bessie, although they do not excuse it. We can see a contemporary example of this dynamic in Erik Killmonger, the villain of Black Panther. Like Bigger, Killmonger is meant to engender sympathy, for the United States turned him into what he is: a psychopathic human instrument of death seeking revenge and power. And yet, for all his wokeness regarding imperialist theft, Killmonger has little regard for women. He does not hesitate to kill them, and he certainly doesn’t have any remorse about it.

When we turn away from black misogyny, as Parks and Johnson do, and as filmmaker F. Gary Gray did in Straight Outta Compton, we do a disservice to black women’s lived reality — the stories preserved on-screen tell an incomplete truth.

This new Native Son from Parks and Johnson doesn’t answer many of the questions Wright presents. Rather, it leaves us with even more questions: How can a film adaptation work if it excises one of the most horrifying scenes in its source material? And can Native Son truly capture the worst effects of America’s subjugation of black people if it turns away from the mortal injuries that befall black women as a result of it?

We lost more than a rapper today: Nipsey Hussle, killed at 33 The beloved, Grammy-nominated rapper was the best of us

Ermias Davidson Asghedom — better known as rapper, businessman and philanthropist Nipsey Hussle — was killed today, gunned down in front of his own Marathon Clothing Store in his hometown of Los Angeles. Two others were wounded. Hussle was 33 years old. Hussle’s acclaimed 2017 Victory Lap was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Rap Album category. He is survived by his two children and by girlfriend, the actor Lauren London.

Standin’ so tall, they think I might got stilts / Legendary baller, like Mike, like Wilt.

I spent 10 minutes staring at a blank word document. Then wrote the above paragraph. Then stared that that paragraph for another 10 minutes still in shock at what I’d just typed. In one afternoon Nipsey Hussle went from living the inspirational tale of how one man can ascend beyond the conditions of his childhood and become a pillar in his community to being shot to death by an assailant or assailants yet to be arrested.

In 2018 Hussle opened a STEM center and a cowork space called Vector 90 in Palo Alto — Silicon Valley’s other-side-of-the-tracks. Now the avid Lakers fan is also another reminder that escape from the so-called ‘hood can be a fleeting dream for even the best of us.

And by all accounts, Nipsey Hussle was one of the best of us. In addition to being an undeniably authentic rapper, he was a disrupter in the business of music, banking on himself by selling albums for $100 and for $1,000 each, respectively — moves that inspired Jay-Z to buy 100 copies of the former. Hussle pumped resources back into his beloved Crenshaw neighborhood, including investing in the real estate that housed his Marathon Clothing store. His business acumen and philanthropy had become as legendary as his mixtapes and albums.


We lost more than a rapper today. We lost someone who loved us. As of this writing there are no suspects in the shooting, and it’s easy to feel there never will be. Bullets that end in black bodies after flying out of unidentified phantoms is far too common in America. Hussle never shied away from his troubled past, he was a member of the Rollin’ 60s Crips and focused a lot of his early music on the life he lived before turning himself around. Like he said on “Grindin’ All My Life” from Victory Lap: Damn right, I like the life I built / I’m from west side, 60, shit, I might got killed / Standin’ so tall, they think I might got stilts/ Legendary baller, like Mike, like Wilt. He rapped about all of it.

“I grew up in gang culture,” he told the Los Angeles Times last February. “We dealt with death, with murder. It was like living in a war zone…people die on these blocks, and everybody is a little bit immune to it. I guess they call it post-traumatic stress, when you have people that have been at war for such a long time. I think L.A. suffers from that because it’s not normal yet we embrace it like it is.”

We lost more than a rapper today. We lost someone who loved us.

I often think about a study released in 2017 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It stated that it takes twenty years of nothing going wrong in a person’s life — perfect education, great college decisions, financial perfection — to escape poverty. Two decades. I think about what that means for people like Nipsey Hussle — black people who had to claw to survive and, no matter how much money he makes or how much good he does, the bullets still find him. He escaped poverty, but he couldn’t escape America.

The best we can do is keep his memory alive the best we can. For Nipsey. For Mac Miller. For Tech 9. For Tupac, Big L and Biggie before them. And far too many others. Learn his lessons. Give back. Believe in ourselves. That’s their legacy, and the real victory lap for Nipsey Hussle.

 

Michael Sorrell took Paul Quinn College from barely surviving to thriving The school’s WE Over Me Farm, born out of desperation, boasts the Dallas Cowboys as a client

An interview with Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College and one of Fortune magazine’s 2018 World Leaders


When Michael Sorrell agreed to a controversial decision to disband the football program at Paul Quinn College in 2007, he saw it as the only way to save the financially troubled historically black college. Located in a working-class African-American neighborhood in south Dallas, Paul Quinn was on the verge of shuttering unless Sorrell, a relative novice in higher education, somehow came up with a miracle.

Paul Quinn was founded in 1872 and was the first institution of higher learning for African-Americans west of the Mississippi River. But as enrollment plunged from 1,000 to 150 students and annual deficits soared to as high as $1 million a year a decade ago, the school devolved into an eyesore, with several buildings in disrepair while others sat vacant.

No one wanted to be the president of Paul Quinn, which is why Sorrell, a Dallas-based attorney with no experience in higher education, initially accepted the job on a 90-day contingency basis as the board of trustees searched for a full-time president. Sorrell, who was part of a group in negotiations to purchase the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies and name him team president, awaited his fate. When the deal to acquire the Grizzlies fell through, Sorrell became Paul Quinn’s permanent president.

His idea to terminate the football program and convert the field into the state-of-the-art WE Over Me Farm where students can work, and from which food is donated to the surrounding community and sold to area businesses for profit, was born out of Sorrell’s desperation and innovation. It worked because Sorrell convinced everyone, including himself, that it couldn’t fail.

Paul Quinn, which was once on the verge of bankruptcy and de-accreditation, has seen its enrollment increase to more than 550 students today, and the graduation rate for students enrolling in 2006 and 2009 improved from 1 percent to 13 percent. In August, the school broke ground on a 40,000-square-foot educational and residential building made possible with $7 million in donations — the school’s first new building in 40 years. Paul Quinn now operates at a profit and has received the most seven-figure gifts in school history while securing full accreditation from the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools.

“I took some criticism, but we couldn’t afford football,” Sorrell told The Undefeated. “The dominant reason for us terminating the football program was economic. But another reason was maybe there’s more than one way out of poverty for young black men. Maybe your mind will sustain your climb out of poverty more than your body.”

A lunch meeting with Dallas businessman and environmentalist Trammell S. Crow prompted Sorrell to reveal there wasn’t a single grocery store for miles to accommodate the community surrounding Paul Quinn. Crow inquired about the feasibility of an on-campus garden. Sorrell suggested the football field, which had been unused for two years.

“He said, ‘Can you do that?’ I said, ‘I’m the president,’ ” Sorrell said. “So he gave some money to turn 30 yards of the football field into a community garden. He also gave money so we could open up a community garden at the church across from the school.” Crow later connected Paul Quinn with Pepsi Co., which also contributed financially to the farm. In 2014, Crow provided the largest gift in school history, $4.4 million, and has become so influential that the new building will be named after him.

“We didn’t know anything about farming,” Sorrell said. “We were inexperienced, but we had righteous rage and we were unafraid to fail. True failure would have been never trying to improve the condition of people in this community, and we thought that was wrong.”

Students at Paul Quinn College at the football field turned farm.

Courtesy of KSJD Radio

As of August, the WE Over Me Farm has grown more than 60,000 pounds of produce and features a 3,000-square-foot greenhouse. Some of the produce is consumed in the dining halls. It’s also sold to Dallas restaurants and grocery stores. The school’s largest customer, Legends Hospitality, serves AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. In 2015, Paul Quinn hired a farm director who specializes in organic farming and opened a farmers market that brings together 10 to 12 vendors each week. Popular items include collards, mustard greens, cabbage, lettuce, carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, garlic, okra, cucumbers, corn, peas, watermelon, cantaloupe, pumpkins and squash.

“It saved our school in one regard because it changed the narrative,” Sorrell said. “No longer were you going to talk about Paul Quinn from the perspective of a need institution that did not have what it needed and should be pitied. When you are in a crisis, you have to change the narrative, and that’s what it allowed us to do. It gave people a reason to look at us and see hope. It’s one thing for me to go around giving speeches about believing and hope and we’re going to accomplish things. It’s something entirely different to give people tangible proof of hope. And from that moment forward, we began to exceed people’s expectations.”

Speaking at the prestigious SXSW EDU Conference & Festival in March in Austin, Texas, Sorrell emphasized that what works at Paul Quinn won’t necessarily yield similar results at schools with greater resources. For instance, cutting football wasn’t the only way to go. But it was considered the best way among other options.

“When I was a young college president, I was stressed out,” said Sorrell, who was named one of Fortune magazine’s 2018 World Leaders, one of only two college presidents to receive the honor. “I had just turned 40. I was frustrated. I was in charge of a school that was failing and there was no guarantee this was going to work. I faced a very real possibility that Paul Quinn College could have survived Reconstruction, it could have survived Jim Crow but it couldn’t survive my presidency. That scared the daylights out of me. At Paul Quinn, people look at our students and dismiss them. Eighty to 90 percent of our students are Pell Grant-eligible. Our average ACT score is 17. So what? That’s just numbers on a page. Maybe the problem isn’t that you couldn’t learn. Maybe the problem is that people couldn’t teach you.

“There was no path forward for us simply doing what other schools did because they were doing it longer and better. That wasn’t going to work for us. We weren’t that type of institution. We didn’t have those type of resources. Our way forward was going to have to be something different. And that different for us was turning the institution around and saying if we were going to design a university for today’s students, what would that look like? If we were going to demand our place in higher education, how would we break down the doors? We were going to have to be less of a college and more of a movement.”

The WE Over Me Farm was only the beginning. In 2013, Paul Quinn experimented with an urban work college in which all students are required to work at jobs on campus and later off campus for potential employers. Students have $2,400 of their wages go toward their tuition and keep the rest. In 2017, Paul Quinn was designated by the U.S. Department of Education as the ninth federally recognized and the first historically black work college.

“What’s truly amazing about what Paul Quinn has become is this idea that we created our own system of higher education,” Sorrell said. “We lost 80 percent of our student population in my first two years. We’re now over 550. We’ve had to manage that growth because we didn’t have [sufficient] housing. There were no urban work colleges [before Paul Quinn]. That model did not exist. If you live on campus, all of our residential students have a job. They work an average of 15, 16 hours per week. They work on and off campus. They have work transcripts so they can show what they can do, and they have their academic transcripts to show what they learned. We also reduced tuition and fees and made it easier for students to graduate with less than $10,000 in student loan debt. We have taken aim at what we have felt are the most dominant issues of our day and are working to solve them.”

In July, Paul Quinn announced that the inaugural site of its urban work college network will be in Plano, a Dallas suburb. Thirty-three students will live in apartments the first year, and corporate sponsors will provide paid internships and classroom space.

“We’re not saying our way is the only way or the best way. We’re saying what we believe yields the best results for the community we serve.”

“We want to open Paul Quinn global campuses and urban work colleges all over the world,” Sorrell said. “Plano was our expansion model. This is about identifying your competitive advantage. We’re in one of the strongest, most thriving business centers in the country. Why wouldn’t we craft a way that allowed us to take full advantage simply of what we have in our midst?

“The farm was just the tip of the iceberg. That gave people the first example of us being able to do things that people weren’t doing or hadn’t done. We’ll use what we have to serve our institution and the community we serve. We give away close to 15 percent of everything we grow. Our largest customer is the Dallas Cowboys because, you know, we still run a business here. But, quite candidly, the farm is wonderful, but the farm isn’t what makes us special.

“I’ll tell you what I tell everybody: We are just warming up,” Sorrell said. “We haven’t even taken our best stuff off the shelf yet. We’re not saying our way is the only way or the best way. We’re saying what we believe yields the best results for the community we serve.”

How Meek Mill opened Sixers owner Mike Rubin’s — and so many others’— eyes to a broken criminal justice system From counted out to counted on: The rapper’s new freedom comes with reality’s nightmare — and a chance to change lives

And why I’m rappin’ like I got somethin’ to prove…

— Meek Mill, 2017’s “1942 Flows


Meek Mill told him. Meek made clear the harsh realities of the criminal justice system. Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin only wishes he had believed Meek sooner.

But now of course, Rubin — billionaire entrepreneur and minority owner of the New Jersey Devils and Crystal Palace FC, as well as the Sixers — has entered the pop cultural lexicon because of his close friendship with the Philadelphia MC born Robert Rimeek Williams. The two met while sitting courtside at the 2015 NBA All-Star Game in New York City.

But 48 hours before the Sixers’ season officially ended with a 114-112 Game 5 Eastern Conference semifinal loss in Boston, Rubin leaned forward over a round table in the Director’s Lounge at Wells Fargo Center. It was an hour before Game 4’s tipoff and VIPs maneuvered, ordering specialty cocktails.

But Mike Rubin is thinking back to conversations he and Meek had about the polarity of their realities. “Meek used to always say to me, ‘There’s two Americas.” I’d be like, ‘Dude, there’s one America.’ He was right,” Rubin says. “I was wrong. There’s America, and then there’s black America. I didn’t agree with him, but he proved to be right.”


Meek Mill’s lawyer, Brian McMonagle, who represented Bill Cosby before removing himself from that case, knew something was off when he entered the Philadelphia courtroom of Judge Genece E. Brinkley. Everyone was nervous, especially Meek. McMonagle saw six sheriff’s deputies. The hair on the back of his neck stood up.

“That told me she’d made her mind up, independent of any argument she was about to hear,” McMonagle says from his 19th-floor office overlooking Rittenhouse Square. It’s at “the heart of Center City’s most expensive and exclusive” neighborhood, essentially an alternate universe away from the North Philly blocks that cultivated Meek. “And obviously once you heard the sentence, it was like a punch in the throat.” On Nov. 6, 2017, Meek Mill was sentenced by Judge Brinkley to two to four years in the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill on a probation violation. Dirt bike riding (popping wheelies) was involved.

An entire courtroom was in shock. Meek immediately began removing his jewelry. For McMonagle, it was the first time in his 33 years of practicing law that he, the district attorney and the probation department were all on the same page — and the judge refused to accept the will of the parties. The case sparked national headlines and inspired rallies and the hashtag #FREEMEEK, simultaneously providing yet another glimpse into a criminal justice system that had haunted Meek since he was 19 — and the community from which he comes for far longer.

“They talking about ‘Free Meek’ and some of them got family members in jail? They supported me?”Meek Mill

During his time in the belly of the beast, Meek became larger than just a cult-y musical icon in his hometown of Philadelphia. He became a local sports Yoda. His 2012 “Dreams & Nightmares (Intro)” had long been revered in hip-hop circles for its energy, fearlessness and unabashedness. So it made sense that the Eagles adopted the record as their theme song en route to the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl victory. Likewise, Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Markelle Fultz all visited Meek in prison — as the Sixers made it as close to the NBA Conference finals as they have since Allen Iverson’s apex. James Harden visited Meek as well. Julius Erving, Kevin Hart and several Eagles players showed up at rallies and lent their voices to the cause of securing Meek’s release, and to the larger cause at hand.

But neither money nor celebrity shielded Meek. In many ways, it seemed to make him more of a target. “I would’ve never discussed [the criminal justice system] with my daughter before,” says Mike Rubin, the sincerity in his voice impossible to ignore. “We got in the car and Meek told me a really scary story about how he grew up that I told my daughter last night. She couldn’t believe it. For me, it was eye-opening. Sometimes … you have moments in life that change your perspective.”

Last November changed Rubin’s view of life in America. He says he’s dedicating much of his focus and energy moving forward — and not just with Meek — to addressing what he calls “a completely broken system.”

Meek has been locked up several times before. As he said from the stage in a Tidal One-of-One conversation with Angie Martinez, “I just turned 31; I’ve been on probation since I was 19.”

Some of these arrests were perhaps warranted. But the root of the charges date back to 2007 when a member of Philly’s Narcotics Field Unit claimed Meek sold crack to an informant. Per Meek’s cousins, who were with him at the time, the arrest was abominable. “It was like three cops — two of them had his feet, and one of them had his arms,” Rasson Parker told Rolling Stone this year. “They basically used his head as a battering ram [to break through the door].”

Profane. Intense. It’s the zeitgeist of Meek’s catalog and a serious candidate for the greatest intro in rap history.

Meek met prison’s revolving door in 2008 and again in 2014. In 2016, he was sentenced to 90 days of house arrest for traveling without permission, forced to wear an ankle monitor, banned from recording music or traveling outside of Philadelphia. Others times he was violated for things like an altercation he got into after refusing to take a picture with a St. Louis airport employee. The charges varied, but there was one constant: Every probation violation he had was brought by Judge Brinkley, who is black. Her interest in him has been consistent.

Once inside, because of his celebrity status, Meek was placed in a mental health ward instead of in the larger general population of the prison. Incarcerated essentially for participating in a fight he didn’t start, and for popping wheelies on city streets, Meek was living beside people who smeared their own feces on walls. Per McMonagle, early on, Meek entered a prison meeting room appearing disheveled. “I thought while I was in there,” Meek told McMonagle, “that I had gone insane and didn’t know it.”

Even with one gold and two platinum albums, Meek remains rap’s quintessential underdog. It’s a role he’s comfortable in. “I’m in the business of proving people wrong,” he says en route to his conversation with Martinez. “Anytime people went against me, doubted me or actually offended me, it gave me the energy to go harder and win. I always had that drive growing up.” Meek played basketball growing up — but you can see why sports teams would love his energy.

Meek began his rap career street battling. Berks Street in North Philly was his first stage. From there, he created a steady barrage of mixtapes, starting with 2008’s Flamers. He signed to Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group in 2011, and to Roc Nation for management a year later, but the last three years of his career in particular have been a roller coaster. There was a high-profile beef with Drake, a high-profile relationship and breakup with Nicki Minaj. And now Meek has emerged — with help from his lawyers, from Mike Rubin and from the community surrounding him — on the other side of his recent prison stint as a new ideogram for the conversation surrounding criminal justice reform.’

Part of the mantra of his critically acclaimed 2017 Wins & Losses album is that growing up in the ghetto teaches you to cherish the wins and learn from the losses. “[It’s] beautiful,” says Meek. “I come from poverty, living without barely anything to my name, to making money and being able to take care of my family and travel the world. … I always reflect back to where I came from and where I’m at now, and it’s not too bad.”

It’s not without its dramas either. Nearly three years have passed since he and Drake experienced their very public falling-out. Meek, during the summer of 2015, held the No. 1 album in the country with Dreams Worth More Than Money. He also essentially accused Drake of not writing his rhymes (which remains a touchy subject in hip-hop circles), and while Drake was dubbed victorious in the virtual squabble thanks in part to his Grammy-nominated battle record “Back To Back,” Meek’s assertion that he didn’t write his own rhymes has been a thorn in Drake’s otherwise invincible side ever since.

“That beef was pretty much a social media thing,” producer Jahlil Beats says from his South Philadelphia studio. Jahlil has worked with Meek on more than 100 songs, and he’s also a co-producer with Rick Ross and Boi-1da of 2012’s Dreams and Nightmares, the album that features “Dreams and Nightmares (Intro),” an opener to the project that became an anthem — in meetings, in the locker room, on the field — for the Eagles. It’s also been on every Philly music lover’s gym playlist and car speakers for the past six years. I’m ridin’ ’round my city with my hand strapped on my toast/ Cause these n— want me dead and I gotta make it back home/ Cause my mama need that bill money/ My son need some milk/ These n— tryna take my life, they f— around, get killed/ You f— around, you f— around, you f— around, get smoked/ Cause these Philly n— I brought with me don’t f— around, no joke, no. Profane. Intense. It’s the zeitgeist of Meek’s catalog and a serious candidate for the greatest intro in rap history.

Maybe that’s the reason Meek’s most high-profile visitor, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, showed up two weeks before his April 24 release. Kraft witnessed the power of the song firsthand at this year’s Super Bowl as the Eagles charged the field at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. And the Boston Globe headline? “Who is rapper Meek Mill and why is Robert Kraft visiting him in prison?”

Asked perhaps because Kraft is one of the most visible team owners in a league at odds with exiled quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose protests for criminal justice reform helped lay groundwork for the activism around Meek’s recent incarceration and present-day activism. Kaepernick has defended Meek, calling him a victim of systemic oppression — a huge example of why the QB took a knee in the first place. In January, from behind bars, Meek donated $10,000 to Youth Services Inc. — an organization committed to servicing at-risk kids, teenagers and their families — as part of Kaepernick’s Million Dollar Challenge.

A source close to Kraft believes that his prison visit with Meek carried a binary opportunity. One: narrative change. Still suffering from fallout within the team because of his team’s unavoidable tie with President Donald Trump, Kraft may have wanted to demonstrate that he, and hence the Patriots, were in some way committed to the cause of criminal justice reform. Two? To perhaps help a young man he views as a friend. Although he isn’t completely familiar with all the details of Meek’s long, exasperating legal history, Kraft and Meek have social ties that go back at least a few years — as noted in a 2015 Rick Ross Instagram caption as #hoodbillionaire, as well as another this year in which Ross said the Patriots honcho was “signed to MMG.”

Michael Rubin recalls, in particular, a private jet conversation Meek and Kraft had about race, culture and how people treat each other. “Meek was really deep in his thoughts. … [Kraft] was really charged up to go see [Meek],” Rubin says.

“This whole situation is bigger than Meek Mill,” says Jahlil Beats. “We’re fighting for something … fighting for a change … [Kraft] could be [using it as public relations], but it’s bigger than that. It’s bigger than whatever people will gain from it. I get it, but I don’t think we should even be focused on that type of stuff. Because at the end of the day, it’s bringing the cause to the forefront.”

Jahlil has been working with Meek since his 2009 Flamers 3 mixtape and has produced/co-produced some of his biggest records: “Make ’Em Say,” “Willy Wonka,” “I’ma Boss” with Rick Ross, “Amen” with Drake and “Burn” with Big Sean. Meek’s time in and out of prison has led to Beats pursuing real estate and entrepreneurship opportunities that includes bringing the first DTLR store to his hometown of Chester, Pennsylvania.

Loyalty to Meek, though, still drives the producer. “We got about 100 records together. I’m so invested in Meek’s stuff that when he takes a hit, we all take a hit. This dude helped change my life. If he’s not out here doing his thing, and I can’t work with him, then how can we eat?”

Meek has survived public embarrassment on multiple fronts. He checked into rehab to battle Percocet addiction. But for Meek, what timelines dub failures are the opposite. As he told Angie Martinez, “If you follow me, you know I stay with ups and downs.”

Travel restrictions and ultimately prison stints prohibited Meek from marketing the brutally honest 2017 Wins & Losses project in the manner it deserved. But W&L did permeate the 12-month news cycle that is the NBA. The album’s second song, “Heavy Heart,” became the soundtrack many speculated LeBron James used to send subliminal shots toward former teammate Kyrie Irving when news broke that Irving wanted out of Cleveland.

Even Drake was shouting, “Free Meek!” from Australia a week after his former nemesis was sent to prison. Meek’s energy speaks to the fervor of so many young black men and women from similar upbringings. Some escape their harsh conditions. Some become ghosts of the streets. But the underlying pain in Meek’s music is what speaks to a generation — one seen every day in courtrooms, prison visitation cycles and living in sheer fear of law enforcement. There’s comfort experiencing shared pain together. That’s the story of Meek’s music: fervent, pained, real. It’s the story of being black in America, no matter where you’re from.


Meek’s prison-to-courtside odyssey the day he was released? An instantly classic, and unfortunate, hip-hop moment. Questionably imprisoned rapper gets out of prison, is flown by helicopter to Wells Fargo Center to be welcomed as prodigal son at the clinching game of his hometown team’s first round of the NBA playoffs. It’s one of those hood superhero tales that will expand exponentially as years pass — like Tupac flying straight to Los Angeles, in 1995, to begin recording what became his All Eyez On Me. Or Gucci Mane recording his homecoming ode “First Day Out The Feds” on, indeed, his first day out of prison in 2016. However triumphant, it’s part of the grizzliness of rap, and how society views the art and those who specialize in it, that being incarcerated underlines profiles.

But Meek has re-entered a society with new influence. “I’m different,” is what he told Angie Martinez on Wednesday. “We have hashtags and move on. Let’s not move on from this.” Meek’s philanthropic history is well-documented, even in prison. Now he is even more ready and willing to speak out about an issue that has defined his entire adult life. The magnitude of his support hit him while he was still in prison.

“I saw people standing out in the rain for me when they didn’t even know me. [That] changed my life,” he told Martinez. “They talking about ‘Free Meek’ and some of them got family members in jail? They supported me?”

Freedom is subjective, especially for Meek. “I ain’t felt free since I was 19,” he said. He’ll continue to fight until he’s completely exonerated. But now it’s more about helping those without the luxury of his celebrity. “If that was me in Starbucks, on probation,” he said with regard to the recent racial profiling controversy in his hometown, “I would have actually been found in technical violation.”

This topic can’t just live in the virtual world, though. For Meek, it can’t just be an internet conversation. It has to be rooted in real-life pain and real-life consequences. It’s that responsibility that weighs heavy on him, but one many believe could be the best revelation for him. “Meek is our sacrifice. His words are like scriptures,” says Boom 103.9’s DJ Amir. He and Meek’s relationship dates back to their teenage years. “He had to be held accountable for those actions even though if he ain’t do it [yet] as a boss your workers are still your liability. I think he understands that now. I think everything’s gonna look good for the future.”

That future is now. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf joined Meek in an intense news conference calling for criminal reform. On Tuesday, Meek delivered a ‘powerful’ speech at the Innocence Project gala in New York City. Meanwhile, Rubin promises he and Meek have “some pretty impressive plans” set to be announced in the “not too distant future.”

“There’s America, and then there’s black America.” — 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin

For Meek — and really for race relations moving forward, period — it’s about having the authentic painful conversations. The systematically inflicted pain Meek shares with so many, along with the passion it has birthed, is his story to tell. Through music, especially. The vehicle that’s driven Meek all the way from the back lots of North Philly to present-day stardom. “Some people trying to put me in a box,” he said. “I’m not going to be Martin Luther King Jr. I’m still gonna be Meek Mill. ”

Yet, he knows music can spread a message donations can’t buy. Jahlil Beats is excited to rejoin Meek in the studio. He compares their chemistry to that of DMX and Swizz Beatz in the early 2000s. “His voice is more important than anything,” says Jahlil. “With this album, it has to be about that. Even down to the requests of the production he’s been asking us to do, it’s a lot of big strings and a lot of uplifting vibes. He really has something to say.

Before getting up, he has one more thought. “I know he been through a lot of things, but this is something different. He’s doing interviews, but the music is how he’s really going to get to the people.”

The Next Chapter: Pro Football Hall of Famer Darrell Green on how the game of life is played off the field His mentoring program is ‘sobering work, but it’s an exciting work because it works’

At the 1983 NFL draft, a young cornerback out of Texas A&M, Kingsville found himself the last player selected in the first round, heading to the Washington Redskins.

It was the beginning of Darrell Green’s 20-year NFL career, which included two Super Bowl championships with the Redskins and recognition as one of the greatest cornerbacks in football history.

After retiring from football in 2002, Green dedicated his time to mentoring youth.

“It’s been a privilege to be on this journey,” Green said. “From the time I got in the league I was involved with youth around primarily this area [Washington, D.C.] and my learning centers in other parts of the country.”

In 2015 he partnered with health care provider Centene Corp., and he now leads Strong Youth Strong Communities (SYSC), a nationwide initiative that hosts free sessions with the Pro Football Hall of Fame to equip youths with life skills to promote positive thinking and sound judgment.

Centene’s vice president of corporate community relations, Joyce Larkin, says the most rewarding part of the program is to see kids opening up, talking about their issues and leaving feeling better about themselves.

“We are in our fourth year of working with Darrell, the creator of our Strong Youth Strong Communities initiative, and we are in our second year of partnering with the Pro Football Hall of Fame as their official youth wellness partner,” Larkin said. “We could not be more pleased with both partnerships and our combined efforts.”

The project is focused on more than a dozen cities and communities in the United States with declining graduation rates, high levels of poverty, homelessness, increasing suicide rates and limited access to educational resources.

According to Green, Centene allows SYSC to expand its approach of helping young people stay healthy.

“We show up with our gold jackets, Super Bowl rings, Hall of Fame rings, and numerous stories and videos,” Greene said. “That gets us in the door in some levels. … Our whole goal is just do everything we can to allow them to absorb all that we have out of us.”

“Oftentimes, the teachers are trying hard, the parents are trying hard, but the kids just need a little bit more encouragement,” Larkin said. “So it’s been our privilege to go into a community, use the gold jackets with their message of ‘The game of life gets played off of the field.’ ”

Green uses his life experiences to relate to youths who attend the sessions. He was bullied as a child, and his brother died of a drug overdose. After his parents got divorced he had a hard time dealing with the transition, and he became a father before he was married. His main message to children is to understand they have the opportunity to establish a foundation for their lives.

“I get excited when I think about this,” Green said. “And I make no apologies. I’m not a young cornerback today. I’m a dad and grandpa today. And I’m proud of that. I’m proud to be able to be relevant to this generation. I’m proud to be able to be received and bring value to the next generation and be counted, be counted in the number of those who are making a positive impact.”

Green picks up stories along the way, and it helps him stay motivated. During one event, he recalled an encounter with a young girl in Los Angeles who was in tears over disappointing her mother.

“During the breakout session she was crying. I’d talked about the importance and the value, the importance of your parents,” Green said. “We spoke that day to what we presented and gave her the ability to see the value in her mother. It was incredible just to spend time with that young lady, and I can give you tons of other stories. It reaches these young people. These kids have the ability to overcome. They have the ability to change. They have the ability to achieve. And they have the ability to forgive and to love, and to serve.”

Later this year, Green and the agency plan to launch a web portal.

“As we travel this country, we want to make sure we can continue to keep a connection to these youths,” Green said. “We’ve got over 10 million people that we’re serving that we have access to support. That’s a lot of work. It’s a sobering work, but it’s an exciting work because it works. We’ve seen a lot of great success in what we’re doing with our kids. And we’re kinda like the old saying, ‘We’re full, but yet, we remain hungry.’ We always are excited to celebrate, but we remain hungry, Joyce and I. We’re also pushing, pushing and pushing.”

Thousands attend MLK50 commemoration in Memphis but for different reasons Civil rights icons, union workers, students and activists participate in several historic events

MEMPHIS, Tennessee — Audriana Thomas made a trip to Memphis and found herself in the midst of making history. The Florida A&M University student, one of dozens selected as a delegate for the I AM 2018 Mountaintop Conference honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and other great leaders, was front and center for the MLK50 march on behalf of union workers.

“AFSCME came to my school and did a seminar on different injustices that are going on in society, specifically with workers’ unions, and they actually recruited us,” Thomas said. “They have actually been giving us leadership training and helping equip us for our future.”

Thomas, other visitors, civil rights icons, pastors, and others numbering more than 7,000 made their way to downtown Memphis to commemorate the death of King in the city where he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

A crowd gathered in the morning on the north end of Beale Street in Memphis to recreate the legendary “I AM A MAN” photo. Several groups of visitors headed to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. Others piled onto another corner at Fourth and Beale streets, anticipating a march slated for noon. The location was filled with music by performers Common, Goapele and Sheila E., as well as speakers who took to the stage throughout the morning. Hundreds more continued to arrive for the kickoff of the nearly two-hour MLK50 march.

Locked arm in arm, Martin Luther King III, his wife, Arndrea, and daughter Yolanda Renee were joined by Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. James Lawson, AFSCME president Lee Saunders, Bishop Charles Blake, actors Chris Tucker and Glynn Turman, and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Hundreds made their way through the stop-and-go path in the chilly spring weather.

While many were in Memphis to commemorate King’s death and honor his fight for justice, some were continuing his fight for better wages and safer working conditions.

Francis Nichols III of Washington, D.C., represented the American Federation of Government Employees as an organizer for AFGE Y.O.U.N.G. (Young Organizing Unionists for the Next Generation).

“We make sure there is a future for our youth today,” Nichols said. “We make sure there is stability and fair work wages and safe work conditions for all. That’s what we stand for at AFGE. … This is something monumental, and everyone got to witness that. He [King] died for us, and we will march for him.”

Meanwhile, Memphian Michael Clark said he understood local concerns in the community. As a Memphis sanitation department employee for 36 years, he said, this march is dear to his heart.

“I will be here every year until I leave here. And I will teach my kids the same thing.”

After the march, a red and white wreath was dropped from the balcony at 6:01 p.m., followed by a moment of silence and a ringing of the 120-year-old, 1,700-pound church bell from Clayborn Temple in Memphis. Singer Al Green hit the stage for a surprise performance in front of thousands.

Wednesday’s events wrapped up with an Evening of Storytelling at the city’s Crosstown Concourse, with panels hosted by Michael Eric Dyson, Tamron Hall and April Ryan featuring the local organizer and founder of the Take ‘Em Down 901 campaign, Tami Sawyer; national activist Bree Newsome; Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.; and others.

While many will leave Memphis, the city’s struggle with poverty, racism and classism persists. These issues are chronicled by columnist Wendi C. Thomas, who founded MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. The digital website is a yearlong reporting project produced by a team of writers, editors and photographers. The coverage focuses on issues that were close to King’s heart, such as jobs and wages, power and wealth, and black business.

MLK50.com reported on research that concluded that 50 years after King’s fight for city sanitation workers, “white workers hold a sizable majority of the higher-status and better-paying jobs among large, private employers in the Memphis metro area, though they represent only 43 percent of the overall workforce.” The data also shows “88 percent of executives and senior level managers in the Memphis area were white. In the lowest-paying job categories, nearly 76 percent of laborers and 73 percent of service workers were black” and “the median income for 2016 was $35,664 for black households and $69,860 for white households.”

Other activists in Memphis were part of the Fight for $15 campaign, which advocates for a higher minimum wage. The state minimum wage rate for Tennessee in 2017 and 2018 is $7.25 per hour, the current federal minimum wage rate. According to the Fight for $15 website, the campaign organizers and participants “won $62 billion in raises for 22 million people across the country by standing up and going on strike for $15/hr and union rights.”

Bernard Lafayette Jr. was with King in Memphis just hours before he was killed The two men met at the Lorraine Motel to discuss the start of the Poor People’s Campaign

It was about 9 in the morning on April 4, 1968. Bernard Lafayette Jr. had gotten the final details of his mission from Martin Luther King Jr.

Later on that fateful day in Memphis, Tennessee, Lafayette would pack his luggage at the Lorraine Motel and head to the airport for a flight to Washington, D.C., the site of his assignment.

Eight years earlier, Lafayette had been a classmate of civil rights pioneer John Lewis at the American Baptist Theological Seminary, a predominantly black institution in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1968, he was the national program administrator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the guiding light of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

The charismatic and magnetic King was not only the president of the SCLC but also its spiritual force and moral conscience. King and Lafayette met alone in Room 306 that morning to discuss media relations for the Poor People’s Campaign, a monumental undertaking designed to bring national attention to U.S. poverty as the SCLC pivoted toward economic rights. That’s why King and the SCLC were in Memphis in the first place: to help the city’s sanitation workers, mostly black men, address their concerns regarding low pay and dangerous working conditions.

Lafayette, the national coordinator for the Poor People’s Campaign, was to conduct a news conference on April 5 at campaign headquarters in Washington. And the media-savvy King wanted the message to be clear.

“He wanted to make sure I mentioned the inclusiveness of the Poor People’s Campaign,” Lafayette told The Undefeated. “He wanted everyone to know that this was about more than black people. It also was about helping poor whites, Native Americans and Mexican-Americans.”

In this Jan. 16, 1968, file photo, Martin Luther King (left), accompanied by Rev. Bernard Lafayette, talks about a planned march on Washington, D.C., during a news conference in Atlanta.

AP Photo/Charles Kelly

At the end of the conversation, King told Lafayette, “We are going to institutionalize and internationalize nonviolence.”

By sunset, those words proved eerily ironic.

When Lafayette arrived in Washington, Walter Fauntroy, the D.C. city councilman and Washington point person for the SCLC, wasn’t there to pick him up at the airport. That’s when Lafayette had an inkling that something was awry.

He called the headquarters of the Poor People’s Campaign, at 14th and U streets in Northwest Washington. That’s when Lafayette found out King had been shot on the motel balcony in Memphis.

Later, Lafayette called The Associated Press and United Press International wire services. Two pay telephones at once — with the AP in his left ear and the UPI in his right.

“Then, the UPI reporter started crying on the phone,” Lafayette said.

That’s when he first learned King had died. Moments later, Lafayette hopped in a cab to 14th and U.

There, he called the Lorraine Motel. Andrew Young, the executive vice president of the SCLC, told Lafayette not to return to Memphis. Fly to the SCLC headquarters in Atlanta instead, he said.

Lafayette then canceled the D.C. news conference scheduled for the next day.

a funeral for which to prepare

In 1968, Lafayette, at 28 years old, was a veteran of the civil rights movement. In 1960, he had participated in the sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters in Nashville, along with Lewis, Diane Nash and James Bevel. In 1961, Lafayette was one of the original Freedom Riders, along with Lewis, Jim Zwerg and William Barbee, as they tried to desegregate public interstate travel in the South amid physical attacks from angry white mobs.

Lafayette also was one of The Children, a book written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam 20 years ago that focused on eight college students, all of whom attended historically black colleges or universities (HBCUs), in Nashville who vaulted to the forefront of the civil rights movement.

Lafayette’s alma mater of barely 100 students, the American Baptist Theological Seminary, is now called American Baptist College and was granted an HBCU designation in 2013.

In 2018, Lafayette, now a 78-year-old minister, makes the 22-mile drive from his home in Tuskegee, Alabama, to Auburn University on Monday afternoons to teach the principles of global leadership for nonviolence, employing the teachings of King and Gandhi. Lafayette’s Alternatives to Violence Project, started in 1975, engages prison populations in conflict reconciliation and is used in 60 nations.

In the 1960s, Lafayette even wrote songs and sang with the Freedom Singers and Nashville Quartet. They sang freedom songs at such venues as New York’s Carnegie Hall, including the “Dog Song,” which was about the irony of dogs from black and white families playing together in rural Southern areas while the children of those same families couldn’t mingle because of segregation. That history has been preserved in more than one Smithsonian museum.

Another singer exhibited his reverence for King and the movement. King’s funeral was scheduled for April 9, 1968; the Academy Awards were set for April 8. Entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. and other stars threatened to boycott if the ceremony wasn’t rescheduled, according to the book Inside Oscar.

Davis, during an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on April 5, declared, “I certainly think any black man should not appear. I find it morally incongruous to sing ‘Talk To The Animals’ [from the Oscar-nominated movie Doctor Dolittle] while the man who could make a better world for my children is lying in state.”

Yes, Hollywood stopped for King; the Academy Awards were rescheduled for April 10.

“Sammy and several other movie stars came to the funeral,” Lafayette said. “They viewed Dr. King as a star, just like themselves. That’s why they came.”

Some SCLC members bandied about the idea of treating King’s funeral like the royals of Buckingham Palace in England, as in the splendor of men wearing top hats and coats with tails.

“Some of them wanted to treat him like royalty,” Lafayette recalled.

But they ultimately thought better of it, instead opting for the images of King’s legacy.

As King had said, in part, in his previous “Drum Major” address from Feb. 4, 1968, “I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. I just want to leave a committed life behind …”

Martin Luther King Jr. (seated, center), Andrew Young (far left, back row) and Bernard Lafayette Jr. (far right, back row) with a group of people in 1967.

Courtesy of Bernard Lafayette Jr.

Keep it simple, the SCLC decided. Hence regular men’s attire. And a mule-drawn, wooden farmer’s wagon to carry King’s casket, symbolic signs of poverty.

The “Drum Major” sermon served as King’s eulogy, per widow Coretta Scott King’s request.

The next two months were both utterly miserable and marginally productive for the SCLC. King’s successor, the solid but less magnetic Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, was determined to launch the Poor People’s Campaign, undoubtedly one of King’s most ambitious projects, which originally was scheduled for April 22.

King’s master plan: put issues such as jobs, unemployment insurance, a reasonable minimum wage and education for the poor on the national front burner.

The day after Coretta King led a women’s march on Mother’s Day on May 12, a collection of plywood tents and shacks were constructed on Washington’s National Mall. It was called Resurrection City, with a population of about 3,000. Rev. Jesse Jackson was named its mayor.

Then came the rain. “It seemed like for 40 days and 40 nights,” Lafayette remembered. “And, man, it was muddy.”

His post-campaign analysis: “It was very challenging and difficult. It was Dr. King’s idea, but he wasn’t with us. So we had to glean from him what we thought was his interpretation of the campaign.”

Lafayette spoke of a bizarre backstory to the campaign: For many of the nation’s poor, especially in the rural South, their only mode of travel was by mule. Therefore, some of the campaign participants wound their way to the nation’s capital by mule-drawn wagons. The federal government authorized some staff members, Lafayette said, to make sure the mules were equipped with special shoes for travel on pavement and soil as well as the correct food.

What about special precautions for the impoverished human beings making the journey? “No, the people had to care for themselves,” Lafayette answered.

The campaign did result in a few lesser victories, such as the federal government allocating free surplus food for distribution in hundreds of U.S. counties in need and agreements with government agencies to hire the poor to lead programs for the poor.

Abernathy, of course, desired more impactful actions, but he had to settle for the pocket-sized ones.

A half-century after the assassination of King, the implementation of the Poor People’s Campaign and the prophetic “Drum Major” speech, a part of King’s legacy was displayed on March 24 in Washington.

His granddaughter, 9-year-old Yolanda Renee King, spoke in Washington at the March for Our Lives rally against gun violence. She told an international audience: “My grandfather had a dream that his four little children will not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character. I have a dream that enough is enough. And that this should be a gun-free world, period.”

She was part of a remarkable scene mixing the past and the present before our very eyes. And it was a gun that killed her grandfather, a horrific murder by a white man that triggered race riots and street violence in at least 100 cities nationwide.

Said Lafayette: “That’s why I have great hope for the future. These young people are making sense, and they seem very determined. You call it passing the torch.”

For Lafayette, Yolanda Renee brought back memories of his last conversation with her grandfather at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

On that fateful day, 50 years ago.

Andrew Young on MLK assassination: ‘You’re going to heaven and leaving us in hell’ Every moment of April 4, 1968, stays fresh in the mind of the former top lieutenant for King

He was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives. He became only the second African-American mayor in Atlanta’s history. Perhaps most impressive, Andrew Young operated as one of the top lieutenants for Martin Luther King Jr.

When the drum major for justice was assassinated at 7:01 p.m. Eastern time on April 4, 1968, on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, Young rushed from the parking lot below to his side.

“People say, ‘Andy, why don’t you take a rest?’ ” said Young, 86, referring to his nonstop travel from his Atlanta home during the past 50 years to promote his various causes for the disadvantaged between delivering speeches on King’s message of nonviolence. “Well, I mean, I stay active because, right now, I can still see Martin’s blood on that sidewalk, and I can still remember the way the bullet tore into his spinal cord.”

Every moment of that day stays fresh on Young’s mind, and he gave his first-person account of what he saw and felt before, during and after King’s death to The Undefeated.


I was in court all day long, and Martin had closed on such a poignant note the night before [at Mason Temple in downtown Memphis], when he came out to speak with a fever in the pouring-down rain. But there were 11,000 or 12,000 people there, and he dragged himself up, and that’s where he made that famous speech, ‘I’ve been to the mountaintop, and I’ve seen the promised land.’ He had been feeling really bad that day, and that next morning of April 4, I expected him to sleep late, and he probably did. But I had to be in court at 9 a.m. because we were challenging the injunction that wanted us to stop from marching [in Memphis for striking sanitation workers].

So after being in court that whole time, and really on the witness stand for about an hour, I returned to the Lorraine Motel just about 4 o’clock. Dr. King, his brother [Alfred Daniel Williams King, known as ‘AD’], Ralph Abernathy, well, they were all in his brother’s room downstairs, which was the bigger room. They had been eating catfish, because Memphis was famous for its catfish dinners and somebody had brought in a whole tray. So they were all eating and drinking that sweet tea, and they were laughing and having a great time, sort of like his old gang, the guys he grew up with.

When I came in, Martin started joking with me, saying, ‘Where have you been all day long? What have you been doing?’ I told him, ‘I’ve been in a courtroom this entire time, trying to keep you out of jail.’ And he laughed, and then he said, ‘You don’t have to keep ME out of jail.’ Then I told him I wanted him to be able to continue this march in Memphis. Then he said, ‘Why didn’t you call me?’ I usually didn’t talk back to Martin, but I did this time by saying something I normally wouldn’t have. That’s when he said, ‘Oh, so you’re a smartass, huh?’ I said, ‘No, I’ve been doing the best I can, and you all have been sitting around here eating catfish and I haven’t had anything to eat.’

That’s when somebody picked up a pillow and threw it at me, and I threw it back. The next thing you know, you’ve got Martin and Ralph and everybody grabbing pillows. It was one of these big rooms with two double beds and sort of suite, and then everybody started to pick on me. I made a feeble effort to fight back, but finally, Dr. Billy Kyles knocked on the door and said, ‘You all need to be getting ready. You’re supposed to be at my house for dinner at 6 p.m.’ The pillow fight stopped, and Martin said, ‘Well, I better get ready. I need to go upstairs and put my shirt and tie on.’ He left.

By the time Martin got his shirt and tie on, Ralph wasn’t dressed yet. But Martin came out on the balcony, and I was down in the parking lot with [civil rights activist] James Orange, who was about 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds, and I was even smaller than I am now. Despite our size difference, James and I liked to shadowbox. So we were shadowboxing in the parking lot, just clowning around, and at first I thought it was a firecracker.

That’s when I looked up, and I didn’t see him.

Martin wasn’t there.

So I ran up the stairs, and he was lying on the ground in a pool of blood. The rifle shot came from somewhere across the street, and the police were over there but they came running toward us. That’s when we all began pointing and shouting, ‘No, go back over there! The shot came from over there!’ But the police kept leaving the area from where the shot came from to run to where we were.

When I looked down again at Dr. King, my first reaction was that it was such a clean wound that it literally severed his spinal cord. You could see it. It wasn’t messy, just a very clean shot, and I realized he probably didn’t get a chance to hear it, and he probably didn’t feel anything. Even though he still had a little pulse, there was no way he could have survived that shot. I thought while looking at him, ‘You’re going to heaven and leaving us in hell. How are we going to get along without you? We were barely making it with you.’

We called [Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s wife] and told her what happened, and the ambulance came to take him to the hospital. Even though I went to the hospital, I knew there was no hope.

On April 8, 1968, Coretta Scott King led 10,000 people in a march through Memphis in memory of her husband Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been killed just four days prior. In front row are (left to right) singer Harry Belafonte; King’s daughter, Yolande; sons Martin III and Exter; Mrs. King; Rev. Ralph Abernathy; and Rev. Andrew Young.

The thing that disturbed us the most was that people started rioting, and we kept trying to talk to the press about getting folks to realize that this isn’t what Dr. King would have wanted. But the reporters wanted to talk to the rioters more than they wanted to hear from us, and that was kind of tragic.

We left the hospital, and we got back to the motel about 10 o’clock that night, and we basically said, ‘Look. We have to keep Martin’s movement going.’ I don’t know how, but we already had planned to go to Washington with 24 different groups of poor people [for the Poor People’s March on Washington that spring]. For the first time, the movement wasn’t mostly black people, but we had invited several Appalachian groups, white groups from the big cities and rural areas, senior citizens, three or four Hispanic groups from the West Coast and Native American groups. It was following Martin’s desire to raise the question of poverty. From the very beginning, the civil rights movement was about leading America away from the triple evils of race, war and poverty.

Here we are, 50 years later, and we haven’t solved those three problems, but Martin gave us the dream. Also, when I look back 50 years, I know he died instantly, and it became clear to me on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel that only his body had been killed, but his spirit lived.

In so many ways, it still lives today.

HBO’s ‘King in the Wilderness’ reveals the loneliness of his last years Interviews with Martin Luther King’s closest friends reveal the personal cost of his focus on poverty and Vietnam

It’s a popular rallying cry for activists: We have nothing to lose but our chains!

But a new documentary on Martin Luther King Jr. illustrates the costs of calling out the shortcomings of your country, and one of them is loneliness.

In King in the Wilderness, which airs Monday night on HBO, Emmy-winning director Peter Kunhardt (The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Henry Louis Gates Jr., Gloria: In Her Own Words, Jim: The James Foley Story) traces the final three years of King’s life through interviews with 19 of his friends and colleagues, including Jesse Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, John Lewis, Andrew Young, Diane Nash and Xernona Clayton. What emerges is a deeply personal portrait of King as human and vulnerable, someone who was not impervious to the criticism directed his way. HBO is making the full-length interviews, about 35 hours’ worth of footage, available on its website the same day.

King in the Wilderness charts the intellectual path that led King to Beyond Vietnam, the controversial speech he delivered at Riverside Church in Harlem, New York, exactly one year before his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. By 1967, King had identified a triad of oppression, consisting of racism, poverty and militarism. He was trying to convince his followers the three were inextricably linked and that it was impossible to remedy one without addressing the other two.

But as King’s understanding of the world grew more complex and his critique went beyond the barbarism of Jim Crow, it became more difficult to marshal supporters. History is filled with martyrs who eventually find themselves in the wilderness for daring to speak openly about injustice, from Nina Simone to Muhammad Ali to present-day wanderers such as Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid. We want our heroes to shut up and sing, or shut up and grab a gun when your country tells you to, or shut up and play ball, or simply shut up. And when they don’t, we take away the pedestal that allowed them to command our attention in the first place, in the form of album sales, or boxing licenses, or NFL contracts.

When King spoke out publicly against the Vietnam War, friends stopped calling, movement supporters stopped donating and his invitations to speak as a guest preacher began to dwindle. He earned the ire of those who were reluctant to criticize President Lyndon B. Johnson, the man who’d signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And there wasn’t necessarily a natural home for King in the anti-war movement, which featured young, white draft dodgers who had the luxury of burning the American flag in the street in a way that King and his black cohorts did not.

When you lose the adrenaline rush of dancing in the ring, or captivating an audience from your perch at a piano, or evading a sack, or nourishing souls around the country every Sunday, what’s left? That is the revelation of King in the Wilderness: that a man with a deep faith in the power of love could fall victim to something as common as depression.

Kunhardt presents King as more than an amalgamation of factoids, quotations and important dates. He explores King’s relationship with his father, Martin Luther King Sr., and it’s eye-opening to think of King Jr. as a young man bumping up against the authority of his father, who cast a long shadow as a community leader and patriarch. King, for example, was interested in folding the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche into his sermons, while his father, a preacher steeped in black Southern tradition, was not so keen on it.

King didn’t have a natural home in the anti-war movement, which featured young, white draft dodgers who had the luxury of burning the American flag in the street in a way that he and his black cohorts did not.

It’s easy enough to recognize that King paid for the country’s freedom with his life. But there was an earlier price, as King’s vision left his contemporaries feeling betrayed, angry and willing to withdraw the status they had conferred upon him. In the documentary, Clayton recounts how King’s close friends simply wanted to see him smile and laugh again after a year in which he’d done so little of either. She recounted presenting him with a couple of gag gifts at a birthday party in January 1968 in hopes of pulling King into the sun.

If Eyes on the Prize is required viewing for eighth-grade social studies classes, King in the Wilderness feels like an apt follow-up for older students who can identify with feelings of isolation and uncertainty about one’s place in the world. It broadens him beyond the two-dimensional rendering so many schoolchildren are presented with every year in advance of the King holiday. That seems especially valuable now as a generation of young people (including King’s own granddaughter) mobilize and agitate for a country with less gun violence and more compassion.

“I believe he died a happy man,” Clayton told an audience at Riverside Church after a recent screening of King in the Wilderness. “I really do.” She kept nodding as she repeated the words, and it was as though, 50 years later, she wasn’t just saying it to soothe those gathered in the pews, but to remind herself too.