Watching the demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo., I couldn’t escape thinking what impact they might be having on protesters’ employment status. Fifty-two years ago, Fannie Lou Hamer lost her home and her job as a sharecropper because she dared to attempt to register herself and 17 other blacks to vote in Mississippi. Hamer said of losing these things, “They set me free. It’s the best thing that could happen. Now I can work for my people.”
As the protests continue, I’m reminded of Hamer and all the others who sacrificed income and profession to wage a much-needed fight for social justice.
As black Americans, we have long been on the receiving end of political, economic and physical assaults at the hands of our country. We also have a long legacy of resistance to that oppression via organized direct action. Today we are in the midst of what many are calling the millennial generation’s civil rights movement. Over the past several years, there has been an onslaught of unprovoked killings and abuses suffered by black Americans at the hands of police that sparked outrage among young black citizens. However, the extent to which we can participate in organized direct action to confront this injustice is tempered by our need for relative security in the labor market.
Several inheritors of Hamer’s mantle are confronting this exact dilemma. People like Deray McKesson, who has been on the front lines in the Ferguson protests, yet works as a school administrator in Minneapolis. In the days following Michael Brown’s death, McKesson and his associate Johnetta Elizie organized a Ferguson newsletter, and they have amassed a large social media following that chronicles the movement in real time. He spends his weekends and vacations traveling to and from Ferguson. Then there is the 21-year-old Shermale Humphrey, a former Subway employee who became so engrossed in the movement after the killing of Michael Brown that she quit her job and began organizing marches and sit-ins full time.
The heart of this dilemma lies in the fact that concerted action to combat systemic racial inequality takes time, and we have immediate needs for food, shelter and clothing that require us to work. To resolve this dilemma, we are forced to engage in the inherent “chicken or egg” question.
Racial injustice manifests itself in the labor market, so fighting against it has the potential to improve our collective economic circumstances; however, shirking our labor-market responsibilities to fight for racial justice puts our individual financial security at risk, which may reduce our capacity to fully participate in organized resistance.
In the age of anti-Obama resentment, employers pose a very credible threat to black employees who take direct action against racism. Corporate influence in the public sector has exposed the fragility of our democracy. It was not too long ago that CEOs were sending out memos telling workers that a vote for President Barack Obama might mean that they would be out of a job. This kind of corporate interference poses serious consequences for any active protester.
Protesting for racial justice proves a significant challenge for a black citizenry that already faces paralyzing amounts of unemployment and underemployment. Young black Ferguson residents are struggling to be gainfully employed. Black residents in general had a 17.8 percent unemployment rate back in August, more than three times the state average. The black poverty rate is also double the white poverty rate.
As we look ahead to the coming days to see what becomes of the Ferguson protests, we have to take an inventory of our own place in the movement. Regardless of our work obligations, we must remain civically engaged, whether it be through protests, community organizing, donating to movements, calling a legislator or any of the many other ways to get involved.
We should take our cue from those black activists of yesterday and today on whose shoulders we stand—those highly visible and not-so-visible men and women who encountered the same dilemma that so many are now facing in the fight for our collective liberty.
Kevin Clay is a Ph.D. fellow in education theory and policy at Rutgers University researching racial identity and urban youth civic action. Follow him on Twitter.