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The Summer of Our Discontent

Protesters against the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Protesters against the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

(Special to The Root) — It is 50 years since the summer of 1963, when civil rights and labor activists were putting the finishing touches on the plans for a mass march on Washington, D.C. That march, as we all know, culminated in a key turning point for the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his now iconic "I Have a Dream" speech, ushering in two of the most productive years of the civil rights movement.

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As we we prepare to commemorate that march 50 years later, we are in the heart of another summer, one in which the enormous advances in civil rights and racial equality, won by the sacrifices of those in the civil rights movement, appear to be in retreat. In a stunning display of raw power, the Supreme Court overrode the power given to Congress in the 15th Amendment to enforce the Constitution's ban on racial discrimination in voting, and hollowed out a key section of the Voting Rights Act. State leaders in the South immediately announce plans to enact voter-suppression laws that had been stalled by the act. Elected leaders unabashedly embrace a range of policies that will make it harder for their own constituents to vote. North Carolina legislators passed a law that Hilary Clinton recently described as one of the "the greatest hits of voter suppression." 

In Florida, the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin suggests that in our gun-soaked society, and aided by "Stand your ground" laws, innocent young black men can be stalked on the streets of their own neighborhood and killed by average citizens whose racial anxiety drives them to initiate provocative and deadly encounters. 

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With colorblindness as a cynically deployed rhetorical cloak, lawmakers adopt policies that squeeze out opportunity for poor black and brown Americans — rejecting almost any legislation that would improve public services, support urban centers and aid those at the economic edge.

Meanwhile, our nation's prisons continue to continue to swell with the incarceration of individuals — again, disproportionately black and brown — convicted of nonviolent drug crimes. Thirty thousand inmates join a hunger strike in California prisons, to protest against the use of, in some cases, decades-long stints of solitary confinement, a practice known to break down the human mind and spirit. Low-wage workers strike at fast-food establishments around the country. 

It is the summer of our discontent, just as it was in 1963.

To be sure, we are in a period of great challenge to the very essence of democracy in this country, to which there must be a powerful civil rights response. The march 50 years ago, and the period known as the civil rights movement, has ended. But there is a difference between the historically bound "civil rights movement" and the movement for civil rights. The former was an extraordinary period in our nation's history. The latter is an ongoing effort born of the recognition that no win is permanent, that democracy must be consistently refreshed, maintained and prodded. As we prepare to commemorate the historic March on Washington, we must also reflect on new challenges we face in the post-civil rights era. 

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These challenges are nothing compared with dogs, nightsticks and water hoses. But these challenges' elusiveness and the seduction of the post-civil rights narrative that lies at their core makes them uniquely difficult to overcome. 

One obstacle is the deliberate effort of far too many in this nation to turn civil rights into a historic relic. A yearly walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. The unveiling of a statue or a plaque. There are elected leaders all over the country who support civil rights only when it is in bronze. When civil rights comes in the form of contemporary legislation, or public policy, or litigation, these leaders are unwilling to move from their ceremonial respect to engage the ongoing need for civil rights protection  in this country.  

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Thus it is possible to have lawmakers, judges and leaders who purport to celebrate the gains of the civil rights movement while they actively promote policies, laws and practices that deny our ability to realize the outcomes those efforts were designed to produce.

Yet another challenge lies in how easily progress feeds our inclination to inertia. We have a black president. There are black CEOs of major companies. There's Oprah. These successes, genuine signs of the progress made as a result of civil rights efforts, mask how many African Americans continue to labor in poverty or at its precipice. How many of our children are uneducated and undereducated. How promise in the lives of hundreds of thousands of lives of black men and boys ends at the jailhouse door.

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Another challenge is our own inclination to glamorize the days of the civil rights movement. We criticize contemporary activism as lacking the strategic vision and focus of civil rights movement-era efforts — a fair criticism to be sure. But we should remember that many people — black and white — questioned, criticized and even rejected civil rights strategies and tactics pursued by now-iconic leaders like Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr. and A. Phillip Randolph. Strategies are only credited once they produce results and usually in hindsight.

Pushing a democracy is a messy business. Success is often preceded by countless failures, and unintended consequences. As civil rights movement historian Taylor Branch said at a forum in Baltimore earlier this year, "People in the civil rights movement were in perpetual, internal conflict about what to do next." Today civil rights leaders, activists and lawyers must be able to experiment, to push the envelope and sometimes to fail, as they search for the right levers that will unlatch the door to new breakthroughs in equity and justice.

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We can learn from the past. The 1963 March on Washington had a longer name. It was the March for Jobs and Freedom. The name reflected the pragmatic focus on the material and the immediate (jobs), and on a high-minded call to a greater goal (freedom). 

Likewise our goals today must remain simultaneously pragmatic and high-minded. We must have a fix to the Voting Rights Act. But we must remember that a fix will only return us to the status quo of 2012. Ultimately, we want full enfranchisement for all eligible Americans. We want jobs, and a bill that protects food stamps, but we also want a raise in the minimum wage and a fair system of housing, transportation, access to credit and quality education that marginalizes poverty itself. We want comprehensive immigration reform.

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Although times have changed, our strengths remain. Freedom Summer has given way to Moral Mondays, and Freedom Riders to Dream Defenders. The courtroom, the boardroom, the legislatures, the streets, the schoolhouse and the human heart and imagination are still our battlefield. The ballot box, our wallets, our voices, our commitment to equality and justice and the collective strength of our communities remain our sharpest weapons. Our opponents almost always overreach. That is our strength, too.

But even if this summer of our discontent becomes a glorious winter, it will only be for a season. The spring will bring new battles. And we will be called to the front again in the ongoing battle to sustain the health and vitality of our democracy.  

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Sherrilyn A. Ifill is the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Follow her on Twitter.

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

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