Restarting the Civil Rights Movement

It was never a powerful monolith but, rather, a wide range of groups with different styles and -- usually -- common goals. Many movement veterans say that approach could work again.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Ask most Americans to name the most powerful image of the civil rights movement, and it would probably be Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial sharing his dream of a color-blind society. The masses at the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and his landmark speech symbolized a powerful, united movement that was forcing change on America.

Truth be told, that historic Kodak moment didn’t truly reflect the movement that everyone, from folks at the conservative Fox News Channel to the hip-hop generation to the White House, lays claim to today. The civil rights struggle was fragmented and contentious and had serious internal divisions. 

But the need to dream and do remains. “Today we face a new set of challenges,” says Brian Smedley of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank devoted to issues of concern to African Americans, “and one of the most significant challenges for the movement today is to somehow tackle the notion that the United States is now color-blind or post-racial.”

Here’s a history lesson according to Wade Henderson, president of the 60-year-old Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights: Were there no NAACP, founded in 1909, there would have been no Martin Luther King Jr. to answer the call in Montgomery in 1955 and no March on Washington in 1963. And if that had not happened, there would be no Barack Obama accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination for president on Aug. 28, 2008, and there would be no President Obama about whose effectiveness those concerned about a civil rights agenda are now debating.

Ask Mary Frances Berry, former chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and a longtime history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, or Roger Wilkins, professor emeritus of history at George Mason University, if there is a discernible civil rights movement in 2010 and they will say no.

No Movement Today

Like most of us, they focus on the intense activity — much of it dramatized in daily newspaper and network television coverage — in the period starting with Rosa Parks (1955) and Martin Luther King Jr. (1955-1968), when blacks still faced the very real possibility of lynchings and church burnings.

“The crux of the problem today is there is no civil rights movement,” Berry says, “and the reason that there is no civil rights movement is that President Obama is the prize in the minds of most people. Obama was the prize at the end of the struggle, and people poured all they wished, hoped, thought of and everything into him. People did not even pay attention to what he promised, didn’t promise or anything.”

His becoming president, Berry says, “was our payoff.” But Obama lost his voice — the one that drew so many to him in the 2008 campaign, she says — and many go-to civil rights “leaders” muted theirs. As she sees it, they do not want to forfeit support from black folks who still spend lots of Sunday church-service time praying for Obama regardless of his performance on issues that could make their lives better. Just look at the concessions on taxes and unemployment benefits that he has been forced to make to the GOP over the objections of so many Democrats. Or a whole lot of other policies, including those involving health care, housing and employment.

“There is a sense of betrayal,” according to Henderson, because the president does not seem to be fighting for the principles he represented while campaigning for the job. Hope has bowed to “the reality of governance.”