Book review

‘Money Rock’ dives deep into Charlotte’s history of inequities

Piedmont Courts public housing in 1885 .  Photo: Jeep Hunter, courtesy of the Charlotte Observer

If I were emperor, Money Rock: A Family’s Story of Cocaine, Race and Ambition in the New South would be required reading for all local, state and federal elected officials with jurisdiction over any part of Mecklenburg County, as well as for the Charlotte city manager and police chief, the county manager, all members of the Charlotte Housing Authority board of commissioners and all Charlotte Chamber members.

Pam Kelley has written a powerful book about one family who struggles with poverty, crime, incarceration, domestic violence, dysfunctional relationships and loving ones, extreme tragedies and intense religious experiences. Using her training as a journalist, Kelley – formerly an award-winning reporter for the Charlotte Observer – covers efficiently the four W’s: who, what, when and where.

But what makes this book so important for government and civic leaders is Kelley’s pursuit of the fifth and most difficult W: Why?

In telling the “why” she offers two related, interwoven stories. One is Charlotte’s history of race relations, poverty and severe inequality of wealth and opportunity. The second recounts the national policies that established and maintained institutional racial segregation and economic inequality, as well as the criminalization of conduct and mass incarceration of black males.

The book focuses on Belton Lamont Platt, who became a successful and notorious cocaine dealer known on the streets of Charlotte as “Money Rock.”

Platt’s parents were low-income African Americans, high school dropouts without marketable skills. His father, Alphonso, was a small-time drug dealer who abused alcohol and committed extreme domestic violence against his wife, Belton Platt’s mother, Carrie. He and Carrie had five children who suffered instability, poverty and fear of domestic violence. All the males went on to lives of crime and incarceration.

Belton Platt, top row center, as a Boy Scout. His stepfather Lonnie Graves is at lower left. Photo: Tom Franklin, courtesy of the Charlotte Observer

Belton Platt, as a child, showed entrepreneurial ambition and skills. He was a natural salesman. His mother was charismatic, politically aware, socially conscious and skilled in survival. But Carrie Platt, now Carrie Graves, was trapped in a violent domestic relationship for which, in the 1960s, there was no feasible legal remedy in North Carolina and, in Charlotte, no shelter for battered women.

Eventually Carrie Graves found a way to take her children and escape Alphonso. She quickly found a young, honorable, law-abiding husband who served as a positive role model to Belton and his siblings. That was a rare thing in public housing in Charlotte during the 1970s and, based on this writer’s observations, afterward as well.

Compared to other families living in extreme poverty and in public housing, Belton Platt seemed to have a relatively promising opportunity. But when he reached adolescence, he rediscovered his biological father. Alphonso’s life in a pool hall, trafficking drugs, was more exciting and powerful than the bland life of janitorial service and Boy Scouts offered by Belton Platt’s stepfather, Lonnie Graves.

For a short while Belton Platt and a high school girlfriend dabbled in the straight life of janitorial work. But he grew weary of laboring from 10 p.m. to dawn to earn only $750 a week. That could not compete with the entrepreneurial success of drug trafficking where, by age 22, he could earn as much as $30,000 a week, with expensive cars, jewelry, clothes and women. He became a local rock star.

Platt enjoyed the power and respect he won. He helped his mother and others in need. Platt (and later his sons) lived by the “code of the street” – personal respect was the highest value, meaning a man had to have the right clothes and cars and the ability to fight for what he wanted. Drug traffickers disregarded the laws of the larger society, embodied by police and the courts, because they thought they had nothing to lose.

What Platt came to lose was everything except his life. Caught in a federal drug sting, he was convicted of felony conspiracy to traffic cocaine. The federal district judge, Robert Potter, nicknamed “Maximum Bob,” for his harsh sentencing, sentenced Platt to 24 years in federal prison. Potter, as it happens, was the judge who in 1999 presided over a civil claim by white parents in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools challenging part of the policy that reserved seats in magnet schools for minority students. Potter went further than the parents’ request and declared the entire school integration system, which the U.S. Supreme Court had affirmed in 1971, to be obsolete. That resulted in the resegregation of the local public schools within another two years.

Belton Platt during a 1986 interview in Raleigh's Central Prison with author Pam Kelly, then a reporter for the Charlotte Observer. Photo: Candace Freeland, courtesy of the Charlotte Observer

In a series of federal prisons, Platt found Christ and new mentors. He became a prison minister of sorts and began using his religious beliefs to guide his life decisions. He was incarcerated for 21 years. Meanwhile, all eight of his male children were arrested for felony crimes by the time they were teens. Some went to state prison for long periods; some were killed; one committed suicide.

Why did all this happen to Platt and his family? Kelley does not answer that precisely, instead offering multiple, interrelated causes. But rather than point to the simplistic answer, “They made bad choices,” Kelley postulates correctly that the fundamental factor was the abject poverty and lack of viable, legitimate means to make a decent living.

From exhaustive research, Kelley provides the historic framework for how poverty was created and maintained in Charlotte and the nation as a whole. It is a history of white supremacy, voter suppression, unequal and separate education, employment discrimination, redlining of real estate that prevented black citizens from obtaining home mortgages and accumulating wealth, and many other devices. At one point Charlotte was ranked the fifth most racially segregated city in the country.

Juxtaposed with that ugly factual history was Charlotte’s record of boosterism and its work to create a self-image as a “progressive” place in race relations and to distinguish itself, as a “New South” city, from places like Birmingham, Ala.

This image was cracked and then shattered in recent years. In 2013, researchers at Harvard and Cal Berkeley showed that among the 50 largest U.S. cities, Charlotte ranked dead last for upward economic mobility among its poor residents. Then, in September 2016 came violent reactions when Charlotte police shot and killed a black man, Keith Lamont Scott.

Kelley describes how those challenges to the city’s self-image triggered a series of soul-searching meetings and discussions in Charlotte. This is not a new method of community reaction to embarrassing developments in Charlotte. This writer has spent many an hour in similar undertakings, which have resulted in numerous studies and proposals that, high-minded as they were, have been largely ignored.  

In her epilogue Kelley aptly sums up this exercise: “If conversation alone could transform a place Charlotte would be a burgeoning utopia.”

If reading an analysis of the causes of crime, violence, pathological poverty and injustice could begin to transform a place, then having enough people of power and conscience read Money Rock would be this writer’s prescription.

Ted Fillette was an attorney in Charlotte with several legal aid organizations for 44 years. He specialized in landlord-tenant law and represented tenants in public and private housing. He retired March 31, 2018.

It is a matter of public record that during the 1970s he represented Carrie Graves and other residents of the Charlotte Housing Authority in a civil suit in federal district court, in the 1970s, but the subject matter of that litigation was not covered by this book. Lonnie Graves was not a named plaintiff, and he benefitted only indirectly by being an occupant in Carrie's apartment.