“Almost 60 years ago, Emmett Till was the thing that shook black America,” Sharpton said. “Today it’s the death of Trayvon Martin and the justice system’s response that has shaken so many of us to our core.”
Sharpton is an outspoken advocate for civil rights who, since the 1990s, has been one of the more readily identifiable and consistent high-volume national voices when racially charged incidents such as Trayvon’s shooting death have occurred. So he has an answer ready when asked about criticisms that he and NAN are siphoning attention and people away from other events or are too cozy with government officials to hold the Obama administration accountable for its failures.
“Listen, the cynics are always going to talk. What they are not about is organizing and doing,” said Sharpton. “You know, they said the same things about the first march and the people who organized it.”
A Voice From the Grassroots
A few states away from Sharpton’s base in New York, Glenn Cassis, 61, is deacon at the politically active Union Baptist Church in Hartford, Conn., and executive director of the state’s African-American Affairs Commission. The commission works to create opportunities for cultural exchange and advises the Legislature about the impact of policy proposals on Connecticut’s African-American population.
This week Cassis has also been the voice on the other end of a telephone line set up for Hartford-area residents who want to join a caravan of buses headed to Washington, D.C., a few days before the Aug. 28 anniversary. The seats on one bus have already been claimed. A second is filling fast.
The group will remain in Washington for almost a week, with each individual free to attend or not attend events, protests, marches, rallies and commemorations as they please, said Cassis.
For Cassis, there is a range of animating issues that will draw him to Washington, D.C. His list of chief concerns includes the proliferation of “Stand your ground” laws, the voting policies that states have begun to employ since the Supreme Court’s VRA ruling, the bias that African Americans often experience in the nation’s criminal-justice system, still elevated black unemployment and immigration reform.
“Those are the civil rights issues of our time,” said Cassis. “Health, education and economic disparities are sadly consistent in this country. But if it weren’t for some of the things that happened this year, the march would probably have been more of a celebration, just a gathering. I’m going to Washington expecting the resurgence of a movement, and I suspect that I am not alone.”
Janell Ross is a reporter in New York who covers political and economic issues. She is working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due to be published by Beacon Press next year. Follow her on Twitter.