How the Talented Tenth Got Over

When is the black middle class going to pay its debt to King?

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I am a child of the black middle class.

I wasn't quite a teenager when Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered. But I have always known that I am one of the millions of beneficiaries of his sacrifice.

Middle class.

I have spent a career considering the term as it relates to black people. In 1968 only roughly one in eight black households could have been defined as middle class. But a decade later, thanks in large measure to affirmative action -- the real and empirical legacy of the King Dream -- that number soared to about one in four households.

As sociologist Bart Landry noted in his landmark book The New Black Middle Class, the number of affluent black folks grew during the second half of the '60s by a number greater than the total increase during the previous 50 years.

Like their parents before them, my mother and father were born, raised and educated in segregated, rural outposts of North Carolina. Somehow, they overcame. The stories they passed along suggested hard work, education and unyielding faith as the tools they used to carve out what passed for a middle-class existence in the midst of a system that denied their very humanity. But there was something more intangible.

Call it a love for black people and a sincere desire to see one and all move upward.

For my direct ancestors, in the days before the Civil Rights Movement made things seem easier, being middle class wasn't so much an economic term as a mindset of survival. It had less to do with the size of a paycheck, and more to do with a determined familial effort designed to absorb the countless, daily indignities of life. It was about creating cocoons around family units and entire communities to shield us all from the shared sting of second-class status that we experienced outside of our protective enclaves.

All black folks in the segregated South lived cheek-by-jowl. My preacher father's house was next door to the gas station attendant's home; the dentist up the street shared the block with a guy who fixed televisions in his garage.

What made a black family middle-class wasn't easy to define. Nobody tossed such terms around back then. As I came to understand class stratification, I assumed it meant some black folks had enough food and money to share with those who didn't. If my folks knew about it, no needy family in my neighborhood went hungry or was evicted from their house.