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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.