Bill Cosby came to town this week to help Howard University, the NAACP and the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, and to accept an honor with his wife, Camille, for their philanthropic work. When the event was over, some folks in the elite gathering at Constitution Hall left with their jaws tight. Cosby, in their view, took the opportunity to say some things that they thought he ought not to have said at such a glittering Washington gala.
I wasn't there, so what I am reporting comes second hand via the newspapers and from an eyewitness account of a close friend who was there with his wife.
Cosby, contrasting the achievements of civil rights giants of the past with today's generation, observed that a lot of "lower economic people are not holding up their end in this deal. These people are not parenting. They are buying things for kids -- $500 sneakers for what? And won't spend $200 for 'Hooked on Phonics.' "
("Fix it, brother," as they used to say at Liberty Baptist Church.)
Continuing, Cosby said, "They're standing on the corner and they can't speak English. I can't even talk the way these people talk: 'Why you ain't,' 'Where you is,' . . . and I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk. And then I heard the father talk. . . . Everybody knows it's important to speak English except these knuckleheads. . . . You can't be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth!"
("Welllll," as the late Deacon Gaines used to say.) Cosby, referring to civil rights leaders, declared: "These people marched and were hit in the face with rocks to get an education and now we've got these knuckleheads walking around."
The famed comedian and author didn't cut anyone any slack, even the brothers in jail. "These are not political criminals," Cosby declared. "These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake and then we run out and we are outraged, saying, 'The cops shouldn't have shot him.' What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?"
("Umph, umph, umph!" could be heard in the choir. ) Cosby went on like this, it is said, for some 20 minutes. Sorry I missed it.
Earlier in the day I was down in LaPlata helping the College of Southern Maryland commemorate the Brown decision's 50th anniversary. Ironically, the same "then and now" contrast on the status of African Americans came up during a question-and-answer session after my address.
Whether Cosby should have used Monday night's upscale D.C. event to share his observations about the state of black America may be open to question. That what he said needed saying, however, is not at issue.
If not there, where? And if not 50 years after "the pivotal and defining moment of the civil rights movement in America," as Howard University President H. Patrick Swygert described the Brown decision, when? Brown cut the legal legs out from under segregation. Doors have been opened as never before. Faces in boardrooms, classrooms, newsrooms, dayrooms, labs and locker rooms have changed, and for the better. But not all the change in the five decades since May 17, 1954, has been good.
Fifty years ago few if any children in my neighborhood went to school hungry. Oh, we may not have carried a nutritionally balanced lunch in our brown bags. And breakfast may not have satisfied the recommended standards of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But bellies were full of something when we left home and when we went to bed at night, and it didn't fall to the government to do the feeding. Time was you could leave your doors unlocked. Your mother could walk to church meetings at night without a male escort. A child didn't have to fear strangers. And no boy would ever, ever think of robbing a helpless old man.
Time was we had something called families. When men and women came together and stayed together, whether out of love, for the sake of the kids, for both, or none of the above. Maybe they kept at it just to make each other miserable. But they stayed together, grew old together and cried when one of them died.
Another event took place in Washington on Monday that just about says it all.
About 50 black preachers from across the country came to town, not to celebrate Brown but to push for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. The Traditional Values Coalition, a conservative Christian group, organized the meeting of like-minded black pastors who oppose gay marriage. Would that this group of ministers were inclined to devote an equal amount of energy promoting the state of marriage. Goodness knows, in our community marriage is a dying institution.
Here's another post-Brown truth: The lowest marriage rate of any group belongs to African Americans. Nearly 70 percent of our children have unmarried moms, and an equal percentage -- one source puts it at 80 percent -- will grow up without the presence of their dads. And the preachers? Even as their churches become older and populated with mostly unmarried women, and small children living apart from their fathers, these ministers of the cloth have the unmitigated gall to rail against two people in love who want to get married and stay married.
Cosby's wrong about one thing. It's not just low-income folks. A lot of us aren't holding up our end in this deal.