By MARK HALL
Economist, writer and syndicated columnist Julianne Malveaux delivered the keynote address for African American History Month on Feb. 12, telling the overflow Mumford Room crowd that "political and economic power is something that must be struggled for, not something that someone will give us."
A fiery speaker, alternately witty and serious, Ms. Malveaux discounted those who say "people have to give us the power." Power is "not like peanuts -- could you please pass the power?" she said. "If you stand still, you are moving backwards."
Ms. Malveaux profiled several successful African Americans. She stressed that African American History Month should commemorate the "people who toiled silently in their fields," instead of focusing only on more famous heroes like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr.
In particular, she talked of two women, Sadie Alexander and Phyllis Ann Wallace, who inspired her own intellectual pursuits.
Sadie Alexander was the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in economics. She had a successful career in spite of prevailing racial attitudes that prevented her from teaching at white schools. Ironically, she had trouble finding work at black schools as well, because of their prevailing attitude toward women, Ms. Malveaux said.
Ms. Malveaux recounted a talk she once had with Alexander's daughter, who said that people who lived during segregationist times still lived full lives. "She said, 'We shouldn't feel sorry for them; we should feel sorry for America because America missed out on their contributions.'" Indeed, Alexander constructed consumption indices, a method of tracking spending patterns, during the early 1920s -- several years before the Department of Labor came up with them independently, Ms. Malveaux said.
Phyllis Ann Wallace was the first African American woman to teach at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Wallace held degrees from New York University and Yale University, which, Ms. Malveaux said, she attended at the expense of the University of Maryland because Maryland's policy was to send blacks out of state for degrees not offered at Bowie State or Morgan State, rather than allowing them to attend classes at College Park. Wallace was also multilingual and performed translation work for the CIA, according to Ms. Malveaux.
Martin Luther King Jr. was also a topic. Ms. Malveaux focused on his economic outlook. "America cracks me up," she said. "Everyone talks about his dream; he didn't die dreaming. He was trying to raise the wages of Memphis garbage workers." Her favorite quote from King came when he was questioning the capitalist structure of American society, asking, "Why must you pay a water bill when the world is two-thirds water?"
Entrepreneurship is the key to power for African Americans, according to Ms. Malveaux, and they need to spend more time and effort studying business. "Money is the road to power," she said. Once economic power is attained, political power will follow. Ms. Malveaux pointed out that African Americans account for $400 billion of the nation's gross domestic product, which would rank them between South Korea and the Netherlands as an economic force. That force could be particularly effective, she suggested, if organized to boycott industries that obstruct the progress of African Americans.
Additionally, she said that African Americans should participate in political campaigns and campaign finance. "We're not letting government off the hook, but we have a responsibility to do it ourselves," she said.
Ms. Malveaux said that "minority status should be expanded, not removed." African Americans tend to be risk-averse, she said, because they've seen that those who step out are often brought down. "We have always done business," she noted, but asked, "How can we level the playing field in a society that frequently closes its doors to us?"
A San Francisco native, Ms. Malveaux graduated from Boston College and went on to get her Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her syndicated column runs in more than 20 newspapers nationwide. She appears regularly on "CNN and Company," and on PBS's "To the Contrary." She has served as president of the Black Leadership Forum and as vice president of the San Francisco chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Mr. Hall is in the Copyright Cataloging Division.