Marching in place


When I read about the $450,000 military-grade Gurkha F5 J.R. Smith rolled through the streets of New York in earlier this month, I felt pinned between two reactions.

One was a shoulder shrug. It's Smith's money and he can drop half a million on a depreciating asset if he wants to.

The other, a dropped head. More than 20 percent of the city lives in poverty -- well above the nationwide average of 15.9 percent -- so I couldn't help but wonder how many people that half of a million could have touched in a more meaningful way.

Of course it isn't fair to demonize Smith's lavishness as if he's the only person in the country dropping large amounts of money on luxuries. Truth be told $5 for a cup of coffee is pretty lavish and millions do that every day.

But how can one not be a little vexed when you consider the timing. Smith's purchase was reported as the nation reflects on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. More than 1.5 million people in New York living in poverty -- the majority of whom are black and Hispanic -- and a black Knickerbocker spends half a million to drive around in a prop from "The Fast and the Furious."

All of the bloodshed, all of the sacrifices, all of the lives ... I wonder what A. Philip Randolph would think if he were alive today.

The conversation about the financial state of black America is one of the more interesting things about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech. Because it was so memorable, the speech overshadowed the original idea behind the march. Yes, racial harmony was a part, but Randolph -- one of the men who envisioned the march -- saw it as a platform to lift the black community out of poverty. Randolph, the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters -- the first predominantly black labor union -- actually pushed for a march on Washington back in the 1940s with an emphasis on job opportunities for blacks. It was his efforts back then that helped lead to desegregation of the armed forces.

Randolph believed without economic empowerment, there could be no true racial harmony. And considering the division in the nation's reaction following the George Zimmerman verdict and the massive gap in wealth between black and white families, it appears Randolph was correct. Yes, the land became much more desegregated after the march. Yes, we have a black president. And yet, the unemployment rate for blacks was twice that of their white counterparts in 1963 and it's still twice today.

Which brings us back to the world of sports and the question of priorities as it pertains to black athletes like Smith.

It's great that they've made it, but does it matter to them if the neighborhoods many of them came from don't?

It is unfair to look at a Muhammad Ali or Jim Brown and say current players pale in comparison to those men. The environment is different today than it was when Bill Russell was making his way to Washington to march in 1963. And there are players who have gone back to their communities to help. LeBron James and his work in Akron, Ohio, come to mind. Jalen Rose opening a school in Detroit is another example of a rich, successful black athlete reaching back to pull up those he left behind.

But because there seems to be a glaring lack of self-awareness in so many of the millionaires who made their fortune playing a game, frustration grips the body. Huge personal sacrifices got them to where they are. Why do so few opt to pay it forward?

As I insinuated earlier -- there is no contractual obligation for them to do anything besides be great at their sport.

It's a question of morality.

The nation is celebrating the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and in a lot of ways the economic state of the black community -- which was the impetus for the march -- is not better. King's dream is memorable, but it was not the point of the march. We have the access, but it hasn't materialized in a way that moves the collective forward.

How would Randolph feel about the state of upward mobility in the black community 50 years later? He would he feel about the way those who have "made it" are choosing to spend their time and their money? Fifty years ago, hundreds of thousands of blacks rallied together in Washington to, in the words of Dr. King, cash a check.

Today we must question: Are we doing enough with the money that we have?

You can't save everyone, but how many are really trying to save anyone?

That's assuming, of course, the legacy of Dr. King, Randolph and the people who gave so much, including their lives, means anything.