50 years later, civil rights leaders face bigger challenges
3rd September 2013 · 0 Comments
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
New America Media Columnist
The 50th anniversary of the monumental 1963 March on Washington was accompanied by a wave of commemorative events that tried hard to recapture the energy and the spirit of the 1963 March. This was a tall order. The original march, punctuated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s towering “I Have a Dream” speech, acted as a powerful wrecking ball that crumbled the walls of legal segregation and ushered in an era of unbridled opportunities for many Blacks. The results are unmistakable today. Blacks are better educated, more prosperous, own more businesses, hold more positions in the professions, and have more elected officials than ever before.
Yet the towering racial improvements since the 1963 March on Washington mask the harsh reality: The challenges 50 years later are, in some ways, more daunting than what King and other civil rights leaders faced.
When King marched in 1963, Black leaders had already firmly staked out the moral high ground for a powerful and irresistible Civil Rights Movement. It was classic good versus evil. Many white Americans were sickened by the gory news scenes of baton-battering racist Southern sheriffs, fire hoses, police dogs, and Klan violence unleashed against peaceful Black protesters. Racial segregation was considered immoral and indefensible, and the civil rights leaders were hailed as martyrs and heroes in the fight for justice.
As America unraveled in the 1960s in the anarchy of urban riots, campus takeovers, and anti-war street battles, the civil rights movement and its leaders fell apart, too. Many of them fell victim to their own success and failure. When they broke down the racially restricted doors of corporations, government agencies, and universities, it was middle-class Blacks, not the poor, who rushed headlong through them. As King embraced the rhetoric of the militant anti-war movement, he became a political pariah shunned by the White House, as well as mainstream white and Black leaders.
King’s murder in 1968 was a turning point for race relations in America. The self-destruction from within and political sabotage from outside of Black organizations left the Black poor organizationally fragmented and politically rudderless. The Black poor, lacking competitive technical skills and professional training, and shunned by many middle-class Black leaders, became expendable jail and street and cemetery fodder. Some turned to gangs, guns and drugs to survive.
A Pew study specifically released to coincide with the 50th anniversary celebrations graphically made the point that the economic and social gaps between whites and African-Americans have widened over the last few decades despite massive spending by federal and state governments, state and federal civil rights laws, and two decades of affirmative action programs. The racial polarization has been endemic between Blacks and whites on everything from the George Zimmerman trial to just about every other controversial case that involves Black and white perceptions of the workings of the criminal justice system.
A half century later, the task of redeeming King’s dream means confronting the crises of family breakdown, the rash of shamefully failing public schools, racial profiling, urban “massive resistance” reaction from White Americans intended to maintain the old white-supremacist rules. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
So it was with Blacks’ emancipation from slavery. So it was with the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v Board of Education school desegregation decision in 1954.
So, it has been with President Obama’s election and re-election. The virulently racist reaction to that landmark event by a minority of whites, aided and abetted by the Republican Party, has produced the same dynamic of a “crisis of victory” that A. Philip Randolph identified a half-century ago.
The most recent survey of racial attitudes of Black, white and Hispanic Americans by the Pew Research Center, released August 22, has charted the disillusionment many Black Americans now feel about the state of racial progress. The survey shows Blacks’ clear belief that their progress has stagnated across a variety of fronts – employment, income, wealth accumulation, quality of public schooling, police-community relations, and so on.
In one sense, the hard facts which show that stagnation – a lack of progress caused or intensified by the Great Recession that in some cases puts Blacks at the same place they were in the 1960s – is reason enough for disillusionment.
But Pew’s surveys of 2009 and 2010 showed that, even as the recession was ravaging Blacks’ economic standing, they were markedly optimistic about the immediate future.
So, it’s rather surprising that Pew did not, as it states, explore “other evidence as to what caused the downward shift in opinions about Black progress.” The document goes on to say that “However, the fading glow of Obama’s first term and the lingering effects of the recession are likely to have been important factors.”
And one could add – don’t you think? – the dismal, continual evidence of the white minority’s “massive resistance” to Black advancement.
After all, Black Americans have endured five years and counting of what I call the “Obama Derangement Syndrome.” During that time hardly a day has passed without another news story about yet another Republican Party official at the local, state or national level spouting some outlandish, if not overtly racist remark about the President and/or his family.
More concretely, in those five years we’ve seen Republican Party legislators in state after state use thoroughly-discredited claims of voter fraud to pass laws intended to deny Blacks (and other Democratic-leaning voting groups) the right to vote – actions affirmed, in effect, by June’s Supreme Court decision striking down the most important provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
For all the progress that’s been made in the last half-century, and for all the good the formation of the multi-racial coalition that’s twice elected President Obama has done, the racist “massive resistance” to his presidency has shown Blacks just how much remains to be done on the frontlines of the freedom struggle.
That’s one of the many reasons we should consider the current discussions about the 1963 March on Washington a “Back to the Future” moment. The story of what happened before that day, and on that day, and after that day make the point that disillusionment isn’t an option. There is work to do.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.
This article originally published in the September 02, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.