A Dream Then, A Different Reality Today
An aging group of civil right veterans recently gathered at the Lincoln Monument to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the historic March on Washington held on August 28, 1963. Many of the veterans that gathered are now judges, congresspersons, state officials, well-heeled businesspersons and professionals.
Their progression from street activists who fought pitched battles to break down the barriers of legal segregation forty years ago is stark proof of the towering remake the civil rights movement made of America's social and racial landscape. But even as the old civil rights fighters waxed nostalgic about the past, they also realized that much still needs to be done to fulfill the hope for America that Martin Luther King Jr. immortalized in his "I have a Dream" speech he gave at the March forty years ago.
In some ways, though, things were much simpler when the fight was against bigoted sheriffs and mobs. Then civil rights leaders firmly staked out the moral high ground for the infant modern day civil rights movement. It was classic good versus evil. The gory news scenes of baton welding racist Southern sheriffs, firehoses, police dogs, and Klan violence unleashed against peaceful black protesters sickened many white Americans. All except the most rabid racists considered racial segregation as immoral and indefensible, and the civil rights leaders were hailed as martyrs and American heroes in the fight for justice.
But as America unraveled in the 1960s in the anarchy of urban riots, campus takeovers, and anti-war street battles, the civil rights movement and its leaders fell apart, too. Many of them fell victim to their own success and failure. When they broke down the racially restricted doors of corporations, government agencies, and universities, middle class blacks, not the poor, were the ones who rushed headlong through them. As King embroiled himself in anti-war, poverty, and labor organizing, he became a political pariah to the White House and mainstream black leaders.
King's murder in 1968 was the turning point for race relations in America. The self-destruction from within and political sabotage from outside of black organizations left the black poor fragmented and politically rudderless. The black poor lacking competitive technical skills and professional training, and shunned by many middle-class black leaders, were shoved even further to the outer margins of American society.
Then there are the chronic problems of gang, and drug violence, family breakdown, police abuse, the soaring incarceration rate of young black males, the mounting devastation of HIV and AIDS disease in black communities, abysmally failing inner city public schools, and the massive state and federal deficits that imperil many social and educational programs.
The civil rights leaders also must confront another changed reality. During the peak years of the civil right struggle, they had the sympathy and goodwill of millions of whites, politicians, and business leaders. They had Lyndon Baines Johnson, a liberal Democrat, in the White House. He shouted and believed in "We Shall Overcome," the slogan of the civil rights movement. They regarded him as a real friend.
Those days are long gone. Instead they must confront the indifference, even outright hostility, of many Americans to affirmative action, the further expansion of social programs, and the threat of further erosion of civil liberties protections. They continue to pound President Bush with allegations that the Republicans cheated blacks out of thousands of votes in Florida and hijacked the White House. They fume at him for picking ultra-conservative John Ashcroft as attorney general, and are scared stiff that the first chance he gets he'll pick more Supreme Court justices like Clarence Thomas. They rail at him for virtually snatching the welcome mat from the door of the White House for black Democrats and civil rights leaders.
Today's civil rights leaders also have to deal with the reality that race matters in America can no longer be framed exclusively as a black and white conflict. Latinos and Asians have become big players in the struggle for political and economic empowerment.
They will have to figure out ways to balance the competing and sometimes contradictory needs of these and other ethnic groups and patch them into a workable coalition for change. They will also have to confront the reality that the new battles for civil rights and economic gains won't be fought in the streets but in the courts, Congress, state houses, the universities, and corporate boardrooms.
These are weighty challenges that would probably perplex and frustrate King. But today's civil rights leaders must still fight as hard as they can to meet those challenges. The man who gave America the dream of racial peace and harmony forty years ago would expect no less. And neither should we.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. Visit his news and opinion Web site: www.thehutchinsonreport.com He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).