Ending the Crayfish Syndrome

Meridian and Utaw Are Bastions of Black Independence and Entrepreneurship

Mr. Reiland, Associate Professor of Economics at Robert Morris College, owns Amel’s Restaurant in Pittsburgh and has been published in USA Today, Barron’s, and Minorities & Women in Business.

What are the chances for upward mobility for a group of poor, black church people 96 percent on welfare—in rural Mississippi, the poorest state in the nation? What’s their prospect for economic success if they don’t get a dime from the Rockefellers or the Ford Foundation? What if they get no new anti-poverty programs, nothing from the Fortune 500, and nothing from the rich and famous African-American celebrities and athletes?

That’s the story of the Greater Christ Temple in Meridian, Mississippi, and they ended up owning 1,000 head of cattle, two motels, a gas station, three restaurants, two chicken farms, 4,000 acres of farmland, the Green Acres housing development, two supermarkets, a hog operation with 300 brood sows, a construction company, a 55-acre Holyland commune, a school, and two meat-processing plants.

“We stopped the Crayfish Syndrome—it’s when you put all the crayfish in a pail, and one starts out and all the others reach up and pull him down,” says Bishop Luke Edwards, the pastor of the church. “We started by selling peanuts in the church, and buying wholesale food with the welfare money and selling it in a small grocery store in the church. Now there’s no welfare or food stamps. We’re saving the federal government $300,000.”

Green Acres is the congregation’s new 54-acre subdivision in Utaw, Alabama, with 132 homes being built for sale to the public. Heritage Construction, another business owned and operated by the congregation’s members, supplies the heavy equipment—18 wheelers, backhoes, dump trucks. The church also acquired two motels this year in Alabama, the Westin Inns in Utaw and Livingston, and started chicken farms in Decator, Mississippi, and Gainesville, Alabama.

“We haven’t allowed anything to diminish our thinking or our efforts,” says Edwards. “Black people can be just as successful as anyone else, but our leaders have allowed us to be entrapped by government handouts. I lived in those neighborhoods. Welfare broke up the families, put the father out of the home, and let another man lay up there all he wanted. Handouts robbed our people, robbed them of self-esteem and self-respect.”

Edwards doesn’t preach the traditional bad news about a shrinking pie in racist America. “Racism is an excuse, a song. No, the playing field isn’t even, but we make it even. We proved we can make it in Mississippi and it’s the poorest state in the nation, and Alabama isn’t far behind. Think what we can do in New York or Chicago. Look at the Cubans out in the ocean coming here. It is the land of opportunity.”

The bottom line for Edwards is to focus more on opportunities than on obstacles, and it’s producing more success than failure. If any one of us were raising a handicapped child—and being black in America is still a handicap—the worst thing we could do is subject that child to a daily harangue about the things he could never accomplish, about what’s impossible for him, about how life is unequal and unfair, about the stream of misunderstandings, obstacles, and prejudice that lie ahead for him. Few of us have levels of confidence and ambition tough enough not to be undone by that.

Edwards delivers the opposite message, and it’s reinforced with no-nonsense schooling and a philosophy that doesn’t sneer at hard work. On top of math and spelling, students at the congregation’s Accelerated Christian Education school, K through 12, learn how to run a hog farm and operate restaurants. These ACE students regularly outscore the state schools, and the courts have 26 students enrolled this term for a straight dose of rehab. The school rules aren’t complex: no smoking, no drinking, no drugs, no weapons, no three or four hours of MTV a day, and no dating. And it’s lights out at 8:30 p.m. No midnight basketball.

To those watching from the ground, a bird that’s out of formation is usually seen as misguided, a joke. We don’t think that the whole rest of the flock might be off track. To the Ivy Leaguers now occupying the White House, a black bishop who doesn’t look toward D.C. for salvation is out of step, some outdated combination of Ronald Reagan, Clarence Thomas, and David Koresh. The only African-Americans who currently qualify for White House dinner invitations are those who believe in bigger government, higher taxes, and more urban pork.

What’s working in Meridian, Mississippi, and Utaw, Alabama is less dependence on government and more respect for business. It is a prescription to reverse the deadly pathologies across America’s inner cities. “There’s no poor black neighborhoods,” Edwards says. “Why would dope dealers be selling there? You’ve seen the money they’re making. Those neighborhoods aren’t poor, they’re just misled and mismanaged. They can put money into opening stores, into creating jobs. They can do it.” What’s needed is more of the entrepreneurship of Little Havana and less Aid for Dependent Children, more of the small business capitalism of Koreatown, Little Italy, and Chinatown and fewer social engineers from HUD and EEOC. It’s time to get the D.C. pipedreamers off center stage and unleash some black independence and entrepreneurship.

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