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.

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“Obama is a cross to bear,” Berry says, and leaders of traditional civil rights organizations find themselves “carrying the administration’s water.” They are no longer just “wholly owned subsidiaries of the Democratic Party,” she says. “They are wholly owned subsidiaries of Obama.”

Smedley, director of the Health and Policy Institute for the Joint Center, has a different response to the question of whether there is life in the old movement. He sees a movement defined not by a single 1940s-to-1960s goal, such as destroying Jim Crow, or by that 1963 Kodak moment, but by “many interconnected efforts.” “There is significant work to be done,” he says, and he is encouraged that some of it is being done by the NAACP, the National Urban League and, perhaps more important, community-based grass-roots organizations.

His perceptions are not all that different from those of Al Sharpton, the mentee-rival of Jesse Jackson, the PUSH founder who considers himself King’s civil rights scion, much to the chagrin of those who had more direct connections to King. Even in the 1960s, Sharpton observes, the movement relied on an interconnectedness of groups with separate agendas and strategies. “In the hindsight of history,” Sharpton says, “it all looks coordinated because it did get results.” The Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Voting Rights Act of 1965. President Johnson’s Great Society. President Nixon’s support for affirmative action.

Collective Action

Egos and testosterone had some of the more established participants on Aug. 28, 1963, questioning why King was being crowned that day. “That essentially was a one-time event,” says Wilkins, who recently retired as publisher of the NAACP magazine, Crisis. “Yes, they were all in it doing something, but they were not all together focused on one thing.”

Well before Rosa Parks refused to give up a seat on a Montgomery bus on Dec. 1, 1955, people — including Parks — had been doing what would be described as civil rights actions, including a 1947 freedom ride to contest segregation in interstate transportation. Most of this gained little attention beyond their communities. Not long ago, I learned that in March 1950, my father and his World War II and Baptist-church-deacon drinking pals had burned down the shanty that was the “colored” school in Conyers, Ga., because, while studying for what would now be called a GED on the GI Bill, they had learned that the state would have to build a modern 12-classroom school with a library and a cafeteria for the black kids of the county.

After 1955, when the calls went out, as they increasingly did — from clergy, from teachers, from chapters of organizations like the NAACP — these localized efforts became part of a bigger movement. And sometimes those bigger movements, starting with the Montgomery bus boycott, actually gained national attention.

Wilkins, whose uncle, Roy Wilkins, headed the NAACP from 1955 to 1977 and was one of the leaders of the March on Washington, says, “There was a movement that needed to be gassed up, and it was gassed up by that event.”

With a major fight for control of the future of Obama’s agenda after the “shellacking” on Nov. 2, there has been a renewed push to define the civil rights movement in 2010, with a black man as president of the United States, and young leaders trying to make their marks as heads of the NAACP (Ben Jealous) and the National Urban League (Marc Morial). Even before the midterm congressional elections, Tea Party movement mouthpiece Glenn Beck was claiming that, even as someone very critical of black folks, he is the inheritor of the civil rights leadership mantle. “This is a fundamentally different country than it was 40 years ago,” Henderson says.

Stuff is happening at many levels with different orders of national importance. Some of the guys who play basketball with President Obama, including corporate executives, may be more effective at pleading the cause than the Congressional Black Caucus. The networking that goes on among sororities and fraternities may be more effective than organizations that are trying to place black children in adoptive homes or to address teen pregnancy.