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. 

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

"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."

"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."

Advertisement

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."

Advertisement

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.

John Payton, who heads the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, says: "We still have significant problems. Some are old, but some are new. A lot of them require local solutions, because whether a local school board works or doesn't work has to have a local solution. How your police department deals with kids standing outside schools is a local police department- community issue. It requires some national coordination and resources."

Advertisement

Like Payton, many folks, including Henderson at the Leadership Conference, focus on structural inequality that needs to be — and is — addressed legislatively and legally: de facto segregation in housing and schools; a criminal justice system that overly incarcerates blacks — especially youth; poor health care; and exorbitant unemployment that makes 15 percent plus the new norm. You know the litany.

On that big day in 1963, you could count the number of blacks in Congress on one hand. There were five, none of them from the South — from William L. Dawson, first elected in Illinois in 1942, through Augustus Hawkins, first elected in 1962 in California. You could see that a new day was coming in black political America — even without all the drama that accompanied Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who was first elected from New York in 1944.

Today there are 45 blacks in Congress, including the Nov. 2 class that gave us two Republican men, from Florida and South Carolina, and Alabama's first black woman, a Democrat. Among the more than 9,000 black elected officials in the nation these days, there are some we are less proud of than others. Rep. Charles Rangel's fall from grace after 40 years serving Harlem has been well-documented. Other members of the CBC have used some of the perks of office to benefit their family members or those of their aides, including Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas and Rep. Sanford Bishop of Georgia. Neither has been charged with a crime, unlike former Rep. William J. Jefferson, who was sentenced to prison for accepting bribes, racketeering and money laundering.

Advertisement

In the classic civil rights period, almost all of these people would have been civil rights leaders at local, state, regional or national levels. Success after the 1965 Voting Rights Act siphoned off those folks, and a practice of passing on House seats and other offices to spouses and offspring has created fiefdoms that benefit their communities when convenient but almost always benefit the politicians.

Protesters Turned Politicians

In the old days, they might have led protests like Powell did in the 1930s to force businesses to treat their black customers with respect — and to hire them. They might have headed chapters of the major civil rights organizations. They might have published newspapers that made a difference. As members of Congress, however, they represent constituencies on a larger stage than the neighborhood, but without making the sort of noise they might otherwise. And they and their kin are more likely to be lawyers, university officials, businesspeople, corporate executives and military veterans than civil rights leaders in the traditional sense.

Advertisement

Of course, some who participated in the old movement or were inspired by it are making a difference. Think Marian Wright Edelman and the Children's Defense Fund; think Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children's Zone. But most leaders of the major, well-known organizations are best at hosting national conventions; making guest appearances at the conventions or funerals of fellow leaders; and making three-minute speeches at gatherings such as the March for Jobs, Freedom, Justice and Peace in October.

So, who you gonna call? Smedley says that if there is a call for another major march or rally, the appeal has to come from someone besides Sharpton and his National Action Network or even Jackson and PUSH. It must come from a broad array of clergy, businesspeople and union leaders and must include Latinos, Native Americans, whites and Asians. So in these times, people start at the local level with their fingers doing the walking and their mouths doing the talking. They engage with churches, mosques, civic organizations — and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

I recently spent hours trying to help a Bronx high school win a health-and-fitness grant. Efforts like mine are the kind of work that led to a successful outcome of the Jena 6 situation. Once that case of black schoolkids being railroaded came to national attention, thanks to college students' Internet-based campaign and boots-on-the-ground action, Tom Joyner took it to the airwaves, Sharpton's National Action Network came in to march and, most important, the NAACP LDF came in to argue — and win — the case.

Advertisement

Consider the case of two black women who have been imprisoned in Mississippi since 1993 for participating in a robbery that yielded $11 — yes, eleven dollars — and claimed neither life nor limb. Their sentence is life in prison. Mississippi, goddamn. Check out Richard Prince's compilation of what's happening. Maybe this can become a cause bigger than the banquet budgets at civil rights conventions.

Mary Frances Berry says: "There will be a civil rights movement when Obama is no longer president. Once the glow has gone off and many of the problems that black people have are still here, there will be a revitalized civil rights movement."

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is a Southerner based in New York and a frequent contributor to The Root.