Cultural Resources




Sunday, April 13, 2008

Ralph Wheeler, Guest Cultural Resource Commentator

Attorney and long-time civil rights activist, Oakland, CA

Lection - Luke 18:18-27
(New Revised Standard Version)

I. Historical Documents

A. A Court Document

In Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), the U.S. Supreme court held that persons of African descent in the United States were not citizens and could claim no rights under the Constitution. Speaking for the court, Chief Justice Taney in a 240 page decision indicated:

“They had for more than a century before been regarded as being of inferior order and altogether unfit to associate with the White race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the White man was bound to respect... [t]he negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. That was [The Negro] was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it.” 1

The Dred Scott decision (which the Supreme Court said concerned property rights, because Negroes were considered chattel), amounted to a striking form of institutionalized economic injustice.

Although not given any of the rights and privileges of citizenship by the highest court in the land, African Americans have been the hewers of wood and drawers of water on which much of America was built. The economic injustices perpetrated against African Americans has meant that they have not received reparations for free labor they were forced to give for three hundred years. Until as recently as the 1960s African Americans were lynched, and “[o]ver half of those lynchings turned out to involve black men who owned their own successful farms and/or businesses and the day after the lynchings, those farms and businesses were sold to white neighbors, in closed auctions for pennies on the dollar, and the black surviving heirs were run out of town. Moreover, in a terrifyingly large number of those cases, historians have been able to show one or more of the following facts: the buyer was the person who made the initial accusation against the victim; or the buyer was a relative of one or more of the following: the mayor, the chief of police, the local minister and/or the local municipal judge.” 2

B. A Musical Document

Strange Fruit, sung by music legends Billie Holiday and later Nina Simone, reveals how African Americans were not treated as humans, but rather "Strange Fruit.” They could be seen as often as the fruits you would see on any tree, because lynchings were a daily occurrence across the south. Strange Fruit was originally written by poet and teacher Lewis Allan.

Strange Fruit
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
Blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
The scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
for the rain to gather
for the wind to suck
for the sun to rot
for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.3

II. Economic Excesses

America is now a nation where corporations make money by placing citizens of all colors in debt. This notion of pushing citizens towards debt is so pervasive that when America was bombed on 9/11/01, President George Herbert Walker Bush Jr. told Americans to go about their business and go shopping! While he did tell Americans to unite and even pray, he made certain that he also told them to go shopping. This makes sense coming from President Bush because he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and understands the world as a place where the haves must push the have nots toward debt to increase the capital of the haves around the globe. This increase in the capital of the haves has spun so out of control that the Democratic Committee Chairman Howard Dean at a rally asked, “[w]hen you see that you’re putting in as many hours as the C.E.O. of your company, and he’s making five hundred and thirty-eight times what you’re making, do you think capitalism works for you?”

Dealing with similar social injustices of his era, street theologian Marvin Gaye responded this way:

Make Me Wanna Holla Way They Do My Money
Rockets, moon shots
Spend it on the have nots
Money, we make it
Fore we see it you take it
Oh, make you wanna holler
The way they do my life
Make me wanna holler
The way they do my life

This ain't livin', This ain't livin'
No, no baby, this ain't livin'
No, no, no

Inflation no chance
To increase finance
Bills pile up sky high
Send that boy off to die
Make me wanna holler
The way they do my life
Make me wanna holler
The way they do my life
Dah, dah, dah
Dah, dah, dah

Hang ups, let downs
Bad breaks, setbacks
Natural fact is
I can't pay my taxes
Oh, make me wanna holler
And throw up both my hands
Yea, it makes me wanna holler
And throw up both my hands

Crime is increasing
Trigger happy policing
Panic is spreading
God know where we're heading
Oh, make me wanna holler
They don't understand.4

III. The Center for Economic And Social Justice

To ameliorate economic injustice, first, a definition of economic justice is required. Established almost 25 years ago, the Center for Economic and Social Justice (CESJ) in Washington, D.C., provides a helpful starting place for what economic justice should look like in the twenty-first century global economy. The CESJ defines economic justice as follows.

Economic justice, which touches the individual person as well as the social order, encompasses the moral principles which guide us in designing our economic institutions. These institutions determine how each person earns a living, enters into contracts, exchanges goods and services with others and otherwise produces an independent material foundation for his or her economic sustenance. The ultimate purpose of economic justice is to free each person to engage creatively in the unlimited work beyond economics, that of the mind and the spirit.5

Important to this definition is the notion that economic justice is a moral principle. It is a given that sound economic principles, robust markets, and efficient productivity are needed as the undergirding for economic viability in a capitalist society. However, without a corresponding guiding moral principle that at least suggests that it can never be appropriate for an employer to earn 538 times more than those who help make him wealthy, economic justice will never be viable in America.

Though I have no training in the area of economics, none is needed to identify the economic injustice that has happened in America to black and poor people of all races for more than three hundred years. Moreover, no such training is needed to remind disciples of Christ, and those who are concerned about the well-being of the human family, that the economic and spiritual fabric of America will continue to erode, unless economic justice becomes a guiding principle that is embedded in and woven throughout the American culture. To be effective this guiding principal must then be practiced by the corporate, political, social, and every other sector of the American community.

America has never recovered from what it stole from the Native American, and certainly not from the forced labor and profits made from enslaved blacks. How does this recovery begin? It can begin in many ways. Important to that beginning is the necessity for basic information about some of the sources of economic injustice.

IV. Robber Barons Impede Economic Justice

In the nineteenth century, the term robber baron was revived in the United States as a pejorative reference to businessmen and bankers who dominated their respective industries and amassed huge personal fortunes, typically as a direct result of pursuing various anti-competitive or unfair business practices. The term may now be used in relation to any businessman or banker who is perceived to have used questionable business practices or scams in order to become powerful or wealthy. It was popularized by U.S. political and economic commentator Matthew Josephson during The Great Depression in a 1934 book.6

While modern economists have made assertions to the contrary, and even attempted to enshrine as heroes many of the early American robber barons, there is more than ample evidence to show that many men (in rare cases women) have and continue to amass fortunes using anti-competitive or unfair business practices which lessens competition and keeps prices unnecessarily high. The leader of the computer software world, Microsoft, built by Bill Gates and Paul Allen, was just convicted in 2004 of unfair business practices, by anti-trust regulators in Europe, and fined 1.4 billion dollars. Microsoft has been sued for unfair business practices on several occasions and has most often been able to squash its detractors due to its significant wealth and massive legal teams. Such practices by conglomerates like Microsoft are one of the reasons that economic injustice exist around the world. Robber barons impede economic competition, and they prevent full participation by all members of society. In addition through lobbyists and politicians they establish the floors and ceilings for goods and services sold to the least of these. In a global economy robber barons ply their trade around the world. These persons are controlled by their wealth to the detriment of their brothers and sisters.


Although the owners of Microsoft could be classified as robber barons, they pale in comparison to the company that sat atop Forbes Fortune 500 list in 2007. That company was formed in 1962 in Rogers, Arkansas by Sam Walton. By the time he died in 1992, the company had $16 billion in revenues. The company is Wal-Mart.

Known for things such as its three dollar jars of giant pickles, plasma TVs under one thousand dollars, and its super stores that carry everything and stay open late, Wal-Mart has sprawled across the economic landscape as few have in history. By selling unheard of amounts of groceries and cheap goods made abroad, Wal-Mart has either put out of business or reduced the profit margins of its competitors and vendors. Also it has refused to negotiate with unions, and it has steadfastly fought its employee’s efforts to unionize. In the meantime Wal-Mart, similar to many American corporations, in 2006 paid its CEO two thousand (2,000) times the salary of the average Wal-Mart worker!7

Reverend Reginald Williams in a 2006 article titled, What Should Be the Black Church’s Response to Wal-Mart? said:

"Wal-Mart, on average does not pay enough to its associates to keep a family of three out of poverty. An associate making $17,000 per year would have to pay more than $2,500 out of pocket for medical expenses. Gender discrimination is rampant a Wal-Mart. Women earn 5-15 percent less than men….And if that were not enough, the government has found Wal-Mart guilty of child labor violations…Upon discovery of these violations, the U.S. government fined this $280 billion company only $135,000 with a promise to give them a warning before the next inspection.”8

Bill Lawson, former head of the Southern Leadership Conference, had this to say about Wal-Mart:

“[with all its resources, Wal-Mart shares little with its employees. The average salesclerk made $13,861 in 2001, nearly $800 below the federal poverty line for a family of three. Less than half of Wal-Mart workers are enrolled in the company's health insurance plan. State after state has documented Wal-Mart workers' reliance on publicly-funded state health care plans for themselves and their children. Wal-Mart stops at nothing to break the will of workers who seek to improve their lives by forming unions. When meat cutters in Jacksonville, Texas chose union representation, Wal-Mart eliminated the department and switched to pre-packaged meat. The company recently announced it would shut down an entire store in Canada rather than honor the newly formed union. Finally, Wal-Mart imported $15 billion worth of Chinese products last year, a result of pressuring its suppliers for costs so low they can only be achieved in an environment where human rights are violated at will. Its insatiable demand for cheap labor has crushed local competitors and driven thousands of American jobs overseas, leaving nothing but, you guessed it, Wal-Mart jobs in their wake. With more than 3,500 stores nationwide, the company has a voracious appetite for growth, and urban areas are one of the few places left to conquer.”9

V. Global Economic Injustice

While there is no shortage of economic injustice in America, most African Americans are still far more economically comfortable than those in their motherland, Africa. Still, if economic justice is to be a reality in America, Christians must also act to ensure that our practices do not harm those around the world. Duodu Cameron speaking about injustices done to Africa, said:

“The insulting statement is often made that "Africa only contributes to less than 3% of world trade. If account were to be taken of the actual volume of the raw materials shipped to the West by Africa, plus the huge tonnages with which African products enrich Western shipping companies, freight handlers and insurance brokers, it would be realized that the West does owe Africa a great deal of money… The West has…profited immensely from Africa's products, which includes gold, diamonds, copper, tin, iron, manganese, bauxite and uranium...

Capital is needed to buy the plant and equipment that can add value to the raw materials before export. But most African governments cannot accumulate capital, because they lead a hand-to-mouth existence, due to the low and often fluctuating prices they are paid for their raw materials. This stranglehold held over them by the West is considered by knowledgeable Africans to be cruel and immoral. It is the principal cause of Africa's poverty.”10

This is also a quintessential form of economic injustice.


The teachings of Christ dictate that his followers, to be true to his way, must speak out against economic injustice wherever it is practiced. Economic injustice is an evil that is rooted in greed. It is supported by spirits of indifference and fear. However, if Christians stand for what is right, we can change these horrible conditions and supplant them with a moral ethos that is founded upon notions of economics justice and respect for all people

  1. Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393, 407 (1856)
  2. Waldrep, Christopher. Lynching in America: A History in Documents. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2006.
  3. Allen, Lewis aka Abel Meeropol. “Strange Fruit.”  (See Margolick, David. Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song. New York, NY: Ecco Press, 2001 for more on "Strange Fruit" immortalized by Billie Holiday, and considered by many to be the first significant song of the civil rights movement and the first direct musical assault upon racial lynchings in the South.) 
  4. Gaye, Marvin. Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler). 1971 What's Going On. Motown master series. Los Angeles, CA: Motown Record Co, 1994.
  5. Kelso, Louis O., and Mortimer Jerome Adler. The Capitalist Manifesto. New York, NY: Random House, 1958. chap. 5; and Miller, John H., Michael D. Greaney, and Dawn K. Brohawn. Curing World Poverty: The New Role of Property. Saint Louis, MO: Social Justice Review, 1994. chaps. 3 and 4
  6. "Robber_baron." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 19 Dec. 2007. online location: accessed 19 December 2007
  7. Goldberg, Jeffrey "Annals of Spin: Selling Wal-Mart.” New Yorker Magazine 2 Apr. 2007
  8. Williams, Reginald. “What Should Be the Black Church’s Response to Wal-Mart?” The African American Pulpit. (Fall 2006) pp 47-49.
  9. Lawson, William. “A Pact With the Community: An Open Letter to Walmart.” updated Mar. 2005. Online location: accessed 19 December 2007
  10. Cameron, Duodu. “Africa the Key is Economic Justice.” New African. July 2005.


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