On the night in 2004 that Maggie Anderson and her husband celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary, the two had been on a tear about the poor economic condition of black communities.
As they paid their $250 tab at one of the most expensive, white-owned, five-star restaurants in Chicago, they realized that they themselves were guilty of not supporting black-owned businesses.
It took five years before the Ivy League-educated couple followed through on the promise they had made that night. With their two girls, they would live exclusively off black businesses and talent and buy only black-made products for an entire year.
“We just got tired of watching our community crumble all around of us,” Anderson said in an email interview with The Star. “We knew that our people and our neighborhoods suffer because the businesses are gone and dying. Without the businesses, the community dies.”
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Anderson, author of “Our Black Year” and founder of the Empowerment Experiment, spoke Tuesday in a packed ballroom in the Sheraton Crown Center as part of Kansas City’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City.
In a fiery speech about searching Chicago block by block for miles for black-owned grocery stores, clothing stores, dry cleaners and restaurants, Anderson talked about how so few of the dollars that black people earn end up being spent in black businesses.
The dollars Asian-Americans earn circulate 28 days in that community, Anderson said. Jewish communities, she said, “keep their dollars 19 days, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants 15 to 17 days, Hispanics a week. Black Americans keep their dollars six hours.”
That is why black businesses have not lasted, Anderson said.
“Everyone knows it wasn’t like that before. Our neighborhoods had the groceries, the fresh marts, dry cleaners, department stores, drugstores and banks owned by local entrepreneurs … just like every other community.”
Anderson said that while committing to finding and supporting black businesses for that year proved challenging, “it was not nearly as hard as the need is dire.”
Some have called her efforts racist. But, she said Tuesday, “this is not black America versus white America. This is ‘We are America, too.’”
She said that when she gives her talk to white audiences, they also applaud and ask afterward how they can help.
“Maybe America is ready for an economic justice movement,” she said.
It is, she said, what King and other advocates for social justice would want.
“King was a huge proponent of black businesses and a public advocate for self-help economics,” she said. “What I do is wholly, humbly in service to King and strives to be a living manifestation of his spirit.”
Mayor Sly James, who attended part of Tuesday’s luncheon, said he understands Anderson’s movement because when businesses thrive in a city, “everybody gains.”
“There’s more work, reduced crime, neighborhoods are salvaged,” James said. “There is no downside to economic prosperity being spread across the community.”