A few days ago I ran into Clay Middleton, a candidate for the S.C. House of Representatives Dist. 111 seat currently held by Rep. Floyd Breeland. I’ve long held Middleton in high regard since he was a cadet at The Citadel. He has proven himself to be a leader, first as an Army officer who served in Iraq then as an assistant to Rep. Jim Clyburn and a field organizer for the state Democratic Party. At 26 years old, Middleton seems wise beyond his years.

Our conversation ranged from the state of black America to strategies for bringing more resources to Dist. 111. Ultimately, we discussed the reasons for some of the disparities in the black community.

According to Middleton, his generation of African Americans seems to think they have no reason to continue the quest for equal rights and opportunities. But he says nothing could be further from the truth.

The need to continue pushing for equal opportunity is as great today as it was in the past. While there has been progress socially, economic progress has been a lot slower.

Another participant in the discussion suggested that integration has led to what many consider stagnated economic progress in the black community. The premise is one I’ve heard many times. Before integration, black-owned businesses flourished, the guy said. In the past, Morris Street in downtown Charleston, along with Spring and Cannon streets, was a vibrant center of activity for black business. Those businesses flourished because blacks were unwelcome in many white-owned businesses.

A classic example of how integration caused the demise of many black-owned businesses is the former Dee Dex Snack Bar. During the late 1960s and 1970s, integration opened the doors of fast food restaurants like Piggy Park on Rutledge Avenue and the Patio on Spring Street. Until then, Dee Dex Snack Bar had been the premier fast food restaurant for blacks downtown.

The business was originally located on Calhoun Street where Gaillard Auditorium is now. The auditorium’s construction displaced the snack bar and drugstore owned by the late Deward Wilson and scores of black families. When the business relocated to Spring Street, its business continued to flourish, but its days were numbered.

The old Brooks Motel, formerly located on Morris Street, is another example of how integration has contributed to decreasing numbers of viable black-owned businesses. Built prior to the signing of the Civil Rights Act into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967, the motel accommodated most of the civil rights leaders when they came to Charleston, including Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. Today, there’s no sign of the motel or Brooks Restaurant, across from the motel on Morris Street. Both were demolished to make way for condominiums, which have displaced not only businesses but also families in the traditionally black neighborhood.

While integration has contributed to a reduction in the number of black-owned businesses, I’m convinced that our failure to fully implement integration is the greater culprit. America has never fully integrated its society, and that has left many would-be black entrepreneurs out of the economic loop.

Middleton said he thinks education is the key to success for African Americans, economic and otherwise. He hopes that by making a quality education available to more blacks and other minorities, they can create more economic opportunities for themselves and their communities.

As the campaigns for House Dist. 111 develop in the coming months, I’ll be interested in seeing how budding new leaders like Middleton address challenging issues like full integration and economic progress among blacks.

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