DAVID SWERDLICK/THE ROOT

Black History Month reminds us of the way in which black activism has historically transcended purely race matters to rise into the stratosphere of universal movements for social justice. Fifty-four years ago this month, four black North Carolina A&T students launched a lunch counter sit-in at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, N.C., that sparked a social and political revolution.

A sit-in that began with four people grew to include more than 50,000 participants by the end of the spring of 1960, inaugurating the direct-action phase of the civil rights era. The protest led to the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, which attracted groups of interracial organizers and became the most important grassroots organization of the era. 

That history, and its contemporary reverberations, continue to surround us.

This past Monday, adopting a page straight out of SNCC’s bold history of social protest, North Carolina hosted an enormous social-justice rally (with estimated turnout reaching 100,000) designed to combat that state’s rightward lurch into repressive policies against African Americans, the poor and those lacking health care. The “Moral Monday” movement advocates a range of issues that focus, in the main, on transforming public schools, providing health care for all citizens, reforming criminal justice, fighting poverty and guaranteeing voting rights.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Eric Holder, the Obama administration’s most outspoken Cabinet appointee vis-à-vis racial justice, seems to be listening. On Tuesday he called for the repeal of voting restrictions that prevent almost 6 million ex-felons—more than a third of whom are blacks—from voting.

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Holder rightfully acknowledged the laws’ despicable origins in racial injustice that stretches back to America’s bullwhip days of antebellum slavery. “Although well over a century has passed since post-Reconstruction states used these measures to strip African Americans of their most fundamental rights, the impact of felony disfranchisement on modern communities of color remains both disproportionate and unacceptable,” he said.

The attorney general’s contention that such laws are “not in keeping with our democratic values” underscores the way in which the past, especially America’s unrepentant history of Jim Crow racism and white supremacy, animates virtually every contemporary debate over race, citizenship and equality. Racism is not just simply in the nation’s DNA—it arranges the way in which all of our institutions interact with citizens.

In the popular imagination, the successful passage of civil rights legislation fundamentally eradicated institutional racism. From this view, contemporary black America has only itself to blame for its plight. It’s a comforting myth, and one that keeps both white and black conservatives warm at night, but it’s a gross distortion of the hard facts on the ground.

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President Barack Obama’s plans to announce “My Brother’s Keeper,” a White House initiative aimed at bolstering opportunities for economically vulnerable and racially segregated black men, is one more acknowledgment that we have yet to reach the “postracial” state of grace prematurely declared in the immediate aftermath of his 2008 election.

A half-century after the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act, African Americans and political progressives of all stripes face a sobering reality of fighting to maintain the spirit and integrity of victories (such as voting rights) long thought to have been won.

The response to our current national climate of racial and economic injustice has been mixed. Some cling to a philosophy of colorblind racism that blames individual behavior for social misery and poverty rooted in systemic inequality. Others marvel at the myriad achievements of the African-American “Talented Tenth,” relishing the achievements of everyone from Jay Z and Beyoncé to Oprah Winfrey and the first family. 

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The boldest choice—one exemplified in different ways by Moral Mondays, Holder and My Brother’s Keeper—is to squarely confront the new face of oppression, which, depressingly, looks strikingly familiar to veteran civil rights activists. The direct-action movement that SNCC launched decades ago continues to serve as an inspiration and a heroic example of speaking truth to power no matter the cost.

Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael, Stokely: A Life, is due out in March. Follow him on Twitter.

Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.