Reflections on Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life and death reminded me that the greatest hero of the Civil and Human Rights Movements also grew weary, frustrated and disappointed. That his mind also delved in the dark recesses of his mind, embittering him with frustration. That he could be as angry as spirited and that he knew his fight would take a violent, wearing toll, eventually taking his own life.
I can't profess to be that sort of activist. I'm a writer. I'm an artist. It is all I know how to do and it is all I can share with the world. I don't know if could be as brave as he and the others who stood up were, answering the call and giving their heart, their soul, their bodies, their lives to the movement. Could I have been that strong? Could I have made that same, sometimes fatal commitment? I want to believe that if I was called to such a duty I would stand up, but I don't know. No one knows until they look into the abyss and face what lies within, discovering the person inside.
King was ultimately successful in what was the first phase of the struggle. He did not live to see it, but integration did happen, black advancement did happen for some. I believe despite the problems that still exist in the black community and despite the racism that is still present in our society, he would marvel at how far we've come in forty years.
But he'll also wonder, what happened? Where was the follow through?
Many of my elders have argued that the movement died with King. There was no heir apparent to take the lead after his death. Infighting grew and the same individuals who were willing to die for King's vision would not follow command under one another. But I wouldn't say that the movement died. I'd say that it got stuck.
Many black organizations, politicians, civil rights groups and institutions are stagnant in their methodology to facilitate progress. Boycott and march. Boycott and march. You'd think those were the only tools King used. You'd think they were the only tools that worked. You think that his ability to utilize the modern media of his day, television, to hold up a mirror to the heart of America and see what evil has wrought.
The fact that he was able to successfully lobby and build alliances with like-minded organizations and individuals, able to reach out and grab the ears of politicians and lawmakers, has been lost in a haze of self-adulation. You'd think that King moved the world with a speech in Washington, that he was a gentle, iodine figure in a photograph. That he made the towers of Jericho fall and the world adore him when he was a controversial figure to both black and white in his day.
The same individuals who are fired up to jump down the throat of Bill O'Reilly or Don Imus, ready to boycott and march over bad service in Denny's restaurants and symbolic gathers of a million men are mum on the denigration of black women, crime and miseducation. It is easy to target "the Man," corporations, government entities and powerful, high-profile individuals, but to challenge ourselves and our situation remains elusive.
Protest is easy when evil comes with a recognizable face.
When it comes in the form of violence or uneven justice or racially charged language, it obvious, the reaction is Pavlovian. But on issues of subprime housing loans, being half of the prison population, low high school graduation rates, poverty, mismanaged and underfunded public schools and lack of ownership in our society, heads are scratched, chins are rubbed, quizzical shrugs are given.
If it doesn't have the world "nigger" attached to it no one knows what to do.
If someone says "nigger," it triggers a response on a level so primal that black people are making phone calls, printing up the T-shirts and creating signs at Kinko's in a sleepwalk. Our common enemy, overt racism, the thing that binds us together. Older revolutionaries long for the "good old days" when racists wore hoods so you knew who they were. It's harder to fight a phantom. You know the ghost of racism is in the woodworks, but how do you prove it? How do you get people to understand?
Our institutions are suffering from malaise and inertia because of the present illusiveness of our enemy, because of the placation of the middle masses of the black community, once the life blood of the movement. I often chastize the NAACP for its ineffectiveness, its inability to maintain a coherent vision in-between the corporate donations and awards ceremonies. But strange of strange, it's not entirely the NAACP's fault for being near bankrupt in ideas and activities on the national level.
In Keenan Ivory Wayans first film, "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka," a character makes a statement that is a truism for almost every organization that was part of the 1960s protest movement.
Yes, we marched on the Federal building. Five hundred of us young brothers, full of outrage. ... They were hiring that day. The brothers came with guns; they left with jobs. Oh, yes, whitey is very tricky.Complacency.
A byproduct of segregation, overt racism and shared suffering is a sense of urgency, an alarm ringing "We're all in this together, we have to act because if not us, who will?" The ascension of the black middle class out of the inner cities and backwater hamlets and into the tony suburbs holding their American dreams meant all their ingenuity and education went with them. "We're all in this together" turned into, "You're on you're own."
These educated, advanced blacks were the ones who helped move us where we are today, but once the "urgency" passed, once they moved up in their station, there was no longer a need to join the NAACP. There was no longer a need to volunteer or protest. They'd, in a sense, "overcome." They got theirs and walked away.
They did not fulfill WEB DuBois' vision of the "Talented Tenth," the educated, professional black class becoming the beacon of progress, leading us out of the darkness of self-pity and degradation. But once a few got their golden tickets out of segregation, it was easy to walk away from the notion that they were responsible for reaching back and pulling up those left behind.
The NAACP is not only suffering from an outdated model of protest, it is suffering from a lack of youthful zest, vigor and life blood to push them into the next phase of the Civil Rights Movement. They are suffering from a lack of participation. They struggle to fill their offices. They struggle in their focus. Our oldest and once most prestigious organization is irrelevant and in some ways our "success" has lead to its fading from our minds. We lost our eyes on the prize. We have become distracted. We have become complacent. We have become apathetic.
There is a disconnect between the old and young, the rich and poor, men and women. Name any part of the black diaspora and we are bleeding talent, energy and intellectual property out of our inability to act.
But despite my frustration, all is not bleak.
Many have criticized the validity of the Jena 6 sentencing considering the circumstances surrounding the crime. The same goes for the sentencing of Genarlow Wilson. But both these cases showed the power of what happens when the young, who understand how to use technology and the new media to its advantages, become invested in the art of protest. These rallies against inequities in prison sentencing were fueled by the Movement's byproducts, the young -- the number one benefactors of the Civil Rights Movement.
The press and outsiders were shocked and overwhelmed by this show of power, this show of solidarity against a very real problem in our modern, post-1960s era. This showed the potential that lies within us today. A potential that is not stagnant, that is not apathetic, that is not cynical.
Things are not perfect, and despite many saying the Jena 6 protests could be the dawn of the next phase in the Civil Rights Movement, I still believe we have some ways to go. When need to learn from the old and the old need to learn from the young. We need to learn how to strategically focus our energy and battles. And we need to be selective in our fights.
Just as the NAACP selected Rosa Parks specifically to begin what would eventually become the Montgomery Bus Boycott, we should carefully select where to fight and where to stand down.
I know that a lot of black bloggers are critical of a local NAACP chapter's response and activist Rev. Al Sharpton's involvement surrounding the "unfair" sentencing of teens involved in the Dunbar Village incident, a crime which involved the rape, humiliation and terrorism of a black woman and her son. It seems bizarre to use this case, with its level of depravity, as an example to hold up against unfair sentencing. Rather than arguing they should receive the same leniant sentence white teens in a similar crime received, shouldn't we be arguing that the white children deserved a lengthy sentence? If they are guilty of what I have read, it is illogical to argue anything but that. Not all blacks caught up in the injustice of our justice systems are innocents. Why this crime and these criminals when there are so many cases of black men and women who are imprisoned on flimsy evidence or receive questionable sentencing? Why was this case such a priority over the others?
That is where lies the disconnect.
It is easy to fight a white man calling us "nigger," but when it comes to fighting for black victims who face terror from criminals and indifference from our justice system there are only shrugs. Fighting the underlying demons of our society, the phantom, is hard. But "nigger," white justice being uneven incites self-righteousness and cries of damnation. But where is the fight for police to protect us and come when we call for aid? To shelter us from reprisals when we choose to speak out against our tormentors? Where are the taxpayer funds to provide us with safety and legal council when we are taken advantage of?
Where is the outrage when justice is denied? Where is the outrage when women and children are abused and manipulated by both their own as well as the system? Why does the word "nigger" have to be involved to stir action?
That's where my personal apathy comes from. People will argue against police brutality, but they don't argue for justice for black victims. My father told me when he was young he knew of black people who killed their spouses or neighbors and were released by the police the next day. They didn't care what we did to each other and in some parts of America they still don't. Black life is still valued less than white life. But there's no plan of attack for this problem. No plan of attack for AIDS. No plan of attack for the health crisis. No plan of attack for sexism. No plan of attack for inequities in education, quality of life and treatment or poverty.
Martin Luther King, Jr.'s movement wasn't only about fighting racism. It was about human rights. It was about poverty. It was about the anti-war movement, the peace movement. It was about fighting injustice and tyranny on all fronts. Yet we stalled out after integration was accomplished. After we were able to eat in the front of a diner and go where we pleased without molestation. Now what? Where do we go form here?
I don't profess to be any sort of expert on the movement. These are just my personal views, but here is what I think could help recharge the movement:
Networking: King didn't fight injustice alone. Neither should we. Activists, organizations and individuals should bond with other groups sharing a common cause. These alliances could benefit all. These could be other black and minority causes as well as anti-poverty groups, churches, unions, education, peace, feminist and human rights based organizations. If our movement is endorsed by a wider net if individuals, if we stand as part of a diverse group and voting block we stand a better chance of swaying our legislators, business leaders and government entities. What if corporate boycotts didn't just involve blacks shunning cities and businesses, but coalitions of men, women and a bounty of like-minded groups? All sides would benefit in this togetherness.
The Barack Obama Model: Technically, this is the Howard Dean model of organization, but the Obama campaign perfected it. It is the art of using the internet and the media to communicate a vision and generate donations and interest. I hope the youth who are inspired by the Obama campaign, regardless if he wins or loses, will take that organization, that model and apply it to causes that benefit our society. That it could be applied to black organizations, sororities and fraternities, HCBU's, the NAACP among others with great success. To channel that energy into campaigns, political power, proactive power, not passive, to push the second phase of the dream.
It sounds strange, but the "Civil Rights Movement" needs to be more broad, more than "black." To succeed, with blacks being such a small population within the US, we need to foster strategic alliances. We need young energy. We need focus and we need the next generation to take King's model and take it to "the promised land."
We are only halfway up the mountain. We have to upgrade, advance our actions, our methods to make it to the top. We have to reach out to others, sharing Dr. King's dream with all who face adversity and discrimination in our society.
I believe this year we should rededicate ourselves to the fight, to be a part of it by giving what we can give. I'm a broke, out of work journalist, so I don't have much to give other than my time and the occasional donation. But I'm going to try. We still have a lot of work to do.