Politician, Civil Rights Leader and Reverend: Walter Fauntroy Speaks on Social Issues
Born in DC’s Shaw neighborhood in 1933, the Reverend Walter E. Fauntroy served ten terms in Congress as the District of Columbia’s pioneering delegate. After his election in 1971 he became an influential voice for twenty years shaping national policy and founding the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Black Leadership Roundtable. Further he launched a campaign to obtain DC home rule with an elected municipal government chosen by the people.
Fauntroy settled in at New Bethel Baptist Church in 1958 where he still serves as pastor upon graduating from Virginia Union University and Yale University Divinity School. He is a respected civil and human rights activist, and former associate to Dr. Martin Luther King, JR. who appointed him director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and coordinator of the historic 1963 March on Washington. A master strategist, his activities directed towards ending racism and social and economic injustice in the world have distinguished him as an important historical figure.
Muata Jordan Langley interviewed him in his office at New Bethel Baptist Church
Street Sense: We are about to observe the King Holiday. Of course, you worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. What thoughts would you like to share with our readers?
Rev. Fauntroy: My work with Martin Luther King, Jr. was a fulfillment of my understanding of principle and social justice work. A fellow student at Virginia Union Wyatt T. Walker, asked me to provide overnight lodging for the son of a southern preacher from Atlanta. He said his name was Martin Luther King, JR. who was preparing to study in Massachusetts. He came, and we stayed up until four o’clock in the morning talking about the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi and the condition of black people.
From a religious perspective, Martin Luther King, Jr. was very clear that we are anointed of God to bring good news to the poor and good news to those who have least income, education, health, housing, and justice.
SS: Forty years ago, President Johnson declared the War on Poverty. Given where we are today, has the war been lost?
Rev. Fauntroy: It is being lost. It was launched because we had a new force in the body politic. Four million new black voters who teamed with the least of these – whites in Appalachia, Hispanics, Asians, and those who had the least education, income, health, housing, and justice. We would tax those who have a large income and redistribute their income in programs that increase income, education, healthcare, and housing for the least of these. That’s the tax system. And, we had politicians who were elected and concerned about these things. Who taxed those who were making money and redistributed it as Medicaid for the sick and poor; redistributed it as section 236 and 221d3 housing for those who could not afford market rate housing? We redistributed it in terms of Pell grants and guaranteed student loans for those who had the minds but not the money to go to college. And so we had a golden era in the Great Society years.
[President] Clinton left us with a $260 billion surplus of funds that could have been converted into Pell grants, guaranteed student loans, and job training programs and so forth. But instead when [George W. Bush] stole the election by not counting votes in Florida they came in with a program and it’s run our surplus down to a $400 billion deficit. They did it by giving $400 billion in tax relief that was coming in to the top ten percent of income earners in the nation.
As a consequence, we are losing the War on Poverty. Because of taxing and redistributing it [Republicans] have said ‘No, we know better what to do with it; cut those programs.’ So, those programs are being cut. Those who are elected decide who gets how much. They have elected to cut the programs that meet the needs of the least of these and to give the money that was coming in back who have more than enough income, more than enough education for their children, more than enough health care, housing, and justice.
SS: It is said that the Bush administration is preparing a 2005 budget with deep cuts to domestic programs. How will this affect the District?
Rev. Fauntroy: The most serious problems confronting the nation manifest themselves most acutely in the experience of District of Columbia residents. In income: 10% unemployment. In education: only 7% of our children in our public schools perform at an average level in the nation. Crime, justice: Most of our young people, I hate to say it, are headed for privatized prisons which are becoming a major Wall Street investment. Since People are not going to have income if kids get into trouble they will keep them in privatized prisons.
Look at a community that just had its last public hospital taken. That has had its higher education institution snatched back. That has had the highest infant mortality rates. That has a disproportionate number of its poor going to jail. And that has a disproportionate number of its poor having no prospects between now and 2005. They are going to end up in the justice system.
SS: Hunger and homelessness continue to rise in major American cities over the last year according to the US Conference of Mayors. What is happening to our American cities?
Rev. Fuantroy: They are in transition. Twenty years from now the Myors of these cities will be in good shape because the affluent will be living there. The Jack Johnsons of the country are going to be removed from the centers of economic powerand activity, struggling with people who are going to have to get off buses and travel for three hours a dayl one and one-half hour in to make a little money and another hour-and-a-half out because they will not have a place to live.
SS: Are you saying that there will be a transplanting of the poor?
Rev. Fuantroy: No question. You need only to go to Harlem; or to Watts, the south side of Chicago, or Buttermilk Bottom in Atlanta. What’s happening here is happening in all of them.
The Mayors, twenty years from now, will have their problems taken care of by people who are making good money and people who can pay for good policemen and for the streets to be cleaned and everything. The wealthy and the upper-income people will be in the cities and the middle class who ran from us will be saying, “Why did I come out here? And I can’t get back because I can’t pay the money”
SS: What happens to the poor and homeless given this scenario?
Rev. Fuantroy: They become the subject and object of the activity of the people of goodwill. You may not always win, but you never lose when you do good.