Downtown Indianapolis was at its most vibrant this past weekend. Thousands of people were walking around, talking to each other, joking, laughing and people-watching. The streets were full of tricked-out cars, their owners competing with each other for the sharpest-looking rides.

In an economic climate where the downtown area is mostly deserted on weekends except for the homeless, a few frightened-looking tourists and the occasional jogger, we should have welcomed an influx of more than 300,000 people downtown, spending millions of dollars on goods and services.

Yet, since the occasion bringing folks downtown was the Indiana Black Expo Summer Celebration, visitors got different treatment than Indy 500 spectators or the various American Legion or Shriners conventions.

Some downtown businesses shut down for the weekend. Metal barricades were set up along every sidewalk. Police officers were stationed, literally, at every corner and there were so many cop cars and paddy wagons parked along the streets, it looked similar to a three-star wanted level on Grand Theft Auto. It almost looked like the city was under martial law.

While I'm sure there were nothing but good intentions and valid reasons for the massive police presence -- crowd control and public safety are tricky things to pull off when tens of thousands of people are roaming the streets all at once -- it has the appearance, at least, of a double standard that seems to exist around Expo.

While I criticized The Indy Star last week for its vanishing presence, the paper's coverage of Expo has been excellent throughout the years, including this one. But at the bottom of every Expo story on the paper's Web site, uninformed readers invariably left menacing, vaguely racist comments about the need for Indiana Black Expo.

The most common theme seemed to be resentment tinged with jealousy, most commonly expressed with the question, "Why isn't there an Indiana White Expo?" It's one that I've heard hundreds of times in my life.

The easiest answer is that there is a White Expo: the Indiana State Fair, which celebrates our rural, predominantly white culture and which is as open and welcoming to attendees of all races as is Black Expo, which is to say, very welcoming.

We have the NASCAR race coming up, whose attendees will be more than 90 percent white. On a deeper level, we have other professional sporting events whose ticket prices are so prohibitively high as to effectively exclude all but the wealthiest 1 percent of the population, which is overwhelmingly white.

But leave those arguments aside for a moment, because their very structure is divisive, and take a look back at why there is, in fact, Black Expo. After the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, there was a vacuum of power among the leaders of the civil rights movement, in part due to the FBI's stated goal of disrupting black organizations and preventing the rise of what they called another "black Messiah."

Dr. King's successor, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, lacked the charisma and the political skill to keep the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from fragmenting. The Black Panthers, on one extreme, and the NAACP, on the other, also lacked the ability to unite the civil rights movement as King had done.

By 1971, Abernathy and the Rev. Jesse Jackson had a falling out and Jackson left the SCLC and founded Operation PUSH, which challenged corporate America to make good on its promises of empowering the African-American communities of the nation with economic opportunity.

It was in this environment that Indiana Black Expo was formed, as a way to exert pressure on big business to be more than extractors of wealth from black people. Today, in part due to those efforts, much progress has been made; certainly not enough, but some.

As companies realized that a diverse workforce is a strong and vibrant workforce, commitments to diversity became more commonplace, not just because it's the right thing to do, but because it makes corporations better.

Equality, opportunity, self-improvement and empowerment: Those were the ideas in the minds of Black Expo's founders, and they remain the same today. They were the ideas that Dr. King, as well as thousands of others, sacrificed their lives to bring forth.

Not coincidentally, those concepts are as American as apple pie. We're all in this together; economic justice for black Americans means economic justice for poor white folk like me, for poor Hispanic-Americans, for women and for all segments of our society.

The trump card in all of this is that, as Americans, we are allowed to assemble peaceably for any purpose we want. That's why Black Expo can exist and that's why the next time you hear someone grumble about it, tell them to STFU and read their Constitution.


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