Thursday, September 5, 2013

Symbolism over Substance: Reflections on the 21st Century March on Washington

by Sylvester Brown, Jr.
Originally published in Op-Ed News / 09-05-13



The 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, August 24, 2013
photo courtesy of the Atlanta Journal Constitution

It's taken me a couple weeks to put the recent commemoration of the 1963 "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" into some perspective. It was a moving, honorable event that paid homage to the sacrifices of many brave and courageous souls who put their lives and careers on the line to change the trajectory of a nation embedded in race-based oppression. There were stirring, eloquent speeches from President Barack Obama, the National Urban League's, Marc Morial, Rev. Al Sharpton, the NAACP's Ben Jealous and others. But beyond the symbolic celebration of a bygone occasion, I found myself questioning the leadership and still hungry for much-needed direction.

Where was the outlined plan for Congress and the Obama Administration that would push them to immediately address the disproportionate woes black people endure today? After all the speeches, what were black people supposed to do to reclaim their communities and their children's lives? Why was their no clear agenda in this time of social, educational and economic crisis?

Some will say that the speakers did in fact refer to a "21st century agenda" and that Obama-speaking at the Lincoln Memorial-where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke 50 years ago-did mention the " growing inequality" in America and the need for "a fair shot for the many." But what was really said? More important, was not said.
 
Symbolism is a wonderful thing but it's time for a do-for-self plan with substance that's aimed at creating alternative systems to stop the hemorrhaging and begin healing societal wounds inflicted centuries ago.
 
To me, the event was more of a reflection on the past without a definitive diagram for our ominous future. Civil rights leaders called for economic parity, equity in education, assured voting rights, an elimination of racial health care disparities and serious criminal justice reform. But what does that mean? Who were they calling on? Washington? With the drums of war once again beating, with deep partisan stagnation and one side stubbornly stuck on hamstringing the president; who really gives a hoot about the needs of Obama's most loyal voter base? Do they really believe that a Democratic Party so afraid to even utter the "R" word will actually do anything about America's "race problem?"
 
These are serious times, especially for black people. We are the most acute victims of failing educational, economic and criminal justice systems. Symbolism is a wonderful thing but it's time for a do-for-self plan with substance that's aimed at creating alternative systems to stop the hemorrhaging and begin healing societal wounds inflicted centuries ago.
 
Obama, aware of the potential conservative backlash, cautiously sandwiched his call for "equality" within the context of his second term agenda. The continuing civil rights struggle was woven into his efforts to convince Congress to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, pass immigration reform, fund his infrastructure and jobs bill and lower the cost of college.
 
It's now apparent that electing the first black president and having high profile African Americans sit in the White House came with a quiet directive to tone down anything "black" or, if necessary, keep it within the broader context of all marginalized Americans. But we can't treat cancer by calling it acne. Hundreds of years of race-based oppression and economic exclusion have resulted in metastasized disparities for past and future generations of black people. These disparities are not moreimportant than what gays and lesbians, immigrants or poor whites grapple with today-they are just drastically different.
 
We can't treat cancer by calling it acne. Hundreds of years of race-based oppression and economic exclusion have resulted in metastasized disparities for past and future generations of black people.
There is a time and place for the "equalization" of our collective woes but the 50 th anniversary commemoration event was not apropos for politically correct niceties. Consider these lopsided statistics: Between 2005 and 2010, the net worth of blacks fell by more than 55 percent as opposed to a 15 percent drop for whites. In 2010, 38.2 percent of black children lived in poverty. For the children of Whites and Asians that number is 21.6 percent. As of 2012, 13 percent of blacks were unemployed compared to seven percent for whites. Each year, according to a recent PBS documentary, 300,000 kids-mostly black-are introduced to the juvenile justice system through the educational system. More than 1 million black men are in prison-the norm for the past 20 years. All combined, these stats indicate that another generation of blacks will be locked in poverty and destined for unemployment, prison and early graves.
 
The March on Washington for civil rights on Aug. 28, 1963 courtesy www.nyust.org
 
When Dr. King spoke of "the mountaintop" most black folk knew exactly what he meant. The 1963 march came at a time when "government" was the most viable option to beat back vicious, murderous attacks on black people and address the blatant and racist denial of basic human rights. Today, our options for change are unlimited. African Americans make up 13.7 of the U.S. population. There are 43 million of us in the United States. According to a new study by the Nielsen Company entitled "African-American Consumers: Still Vital, Still Growing," by 2015, our projected buying power will exceed $1Trillion. Unlike yesteryear when blacks were locked out or confined to the bottom tiers of society, African Americans today occupy the highest ranks imaginable in business, politics, sports, entertainment and more.
 
In 1963, black celebrities such as Jackie Robinson, James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, Marion Anderson, Sammy Davis, Jr., Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee attended the march. They had no idea what Dr. King and other speakers would say or who they'd offend with their remarks on race. Yet, those icons put their careers at risk for a greater and nobler cause. High-profile blacks at the recent march, such as Oprah Winfrey, Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker, Soledad O'Brien and Hill Harper had no fears of risking their celebrity-hood. Other than Atty. General Eric Holder's bold announcement that the federal government would no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, our "talented 10 th" today had no worries of being linked to a bold agenda for progressive change; because nothing controversial was really put forth.
photo courtesy of wikipedia

There were indeed protests back in 1963 from the White House, religious organizations and more moderate civil rights groups who wanted speakers to delete any inflammatory or indicting remarks about government or religious institutions. Organizers and activists such as Stokely Carmichael and members of SNCC, CORE and the SCLC defiantly opposed such censorship. Under pressure and threats of public denouncement from powerful groups, some of the of the rhetoric was softened and author James Baldwin was striken from the prgram in fear of what he might say. Still, the thunder still roared. For example, in his speech, Congressman John Lewis-one of the youngest speakers at the 1963 event-urged blacks to "get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes."

 
Lest we forget, that after the 2oth Century march, extraordinary, ordinary black folk went home and went to work. Gathering in churches, homes and neighborhoods, they unapologetically set out to change the course of a nation. They pooled their personal and collective resources and held voter registration drives and kicked off nation-wide sit-ins and protests throughout the segregated south and the not-yet-integrated north. The Kennedy Administration and the Democratic Party were put on notice that they had to earn black votes. These actions led to the passage of landmark civil rights legislation and President Johnson's "War on Poverty."
 
High-profile blacks at the recent march, such as Oprah Winfrey, Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker, Soledad O'Brien and Hill Harper had no fears of risking their celebrity-hood.
It's sad to see today's black leadership rendered impotent. They still operate with 1960's rhetoric and 20 th century expectations. The time of "white guilt" stirred by never-before-seen television images of animalistic racism are long gone. In today's ever-evolving multi-media world, bloody coups and genocidal violations around the globe are just a touch screen away. Against this backdrop, the plight of blacks is seen as outdated and passé to many.
 
National polls show that the majority of African Americans are very dissatisfied with race relations in America. While most felt the exoneration of George Zimmerman for the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was proof positive that institutionalized racism still exists, most whites don't share that opinion. The majority, 54 percent, according to a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, believe that minorities "receive equal treatment under the law." A Pew Center study showed that 49 percent of whites were actually satisfied with the verdict and another Washington Post/ABC poll found that 50% of white Americans think race relations are "very good" or "fairly good."
 
The reality is that this country, burdened with economic woes that affect everybody has moved on. In a very real sense; blacks have to make their own change. Back in 2010 when the Rev. Al Sharpton and commentator Tavis Smiley almost came to blows over the issue of Obama committing to a "black agenda""or not. Sharpton, as president of the National Action Network (NAN), vowed to hold the Administration accountable and develop a real agenda for Black America. Ironically, links to those statements have been taken down from the site but here's a quote I saved from a 2010 NAN press release: "The collective will discuss the real problems and how we will not only hold the President and Administration of the United States accountable, but how we will hold ourselves accountable and tangibly measure our movement over a 12-month period to enact change."
 
It's been almost four years since that public release and Sharpton and other members of the civil rights "collective" are still talking about coming together to draft such an agenda.
 
This leads me to question the criteria of "leadership." Should it be old style civil rights leaders who are still solely entrenched in government guidance and assistance or others like Van Jones, Majora Carter, Angela Glover-Blackwell and Michelle Alexander? These are just a few of the forward-thinking individuals who've dedicated their careers to drafting solutions that will lead to sustainable, environmental and economic "new" revitalized systems where minorities can are major players in their own reclamation.
 
The 50 th anniversary commemoration was the right time and the right place to unveil a budgeted, self-sustaining agenda that would finally tackle issues that have plagued blacks for centuries. What we witnessed instead was a 21 st Century symbolic event with homogenized 20 th Century messages. Sadly, it was a commemoration with no specific agenda, no plan and no spark that will truly lift black people to the long-awaited proverbial mountaintop.
 
Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a St. Louis-based writer and founder and director of the Sweet Potato Project, a nonprofit program in St. Louis that teaches at-risk youth "do-for-self" entrepreneurial skills.