What Now? Expanding the Umbrella of Civil Rights
In the wake of Al Sharpton and the National Action Network (NAN)’s organizing of the MLK Dream at 50 march, most of the conversations I’ve had with friends
that weren’t about Miley Cyrus have all carried the common theme of “Ok . . . so what now?” Whether the march was inspiring or underwhelming, most folks seem to have emerged from Washington, DC (or from in front of their television sets–#nojudgment) without a sense of direction regarding the “movement.”
First off, let me give props where props are due. Shout out to Rev. Sharpton and NAN for organizing the March at 50. Thousands of people descended upon the nation’s capital to remember, celebrate, and observe what happened 50 years ago when Dr. King delivered his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech in front of the eyes of the world. Had Rev. Sharpton not stepped up to the plate we can only guess who else, if anyone, would have taken on the task of trying to galvanize our community around revisiting Dr. King’s vision. Despite the predictable grumblings from attendees regarding logistics with the march, this was no small feat. Rev. Sharpton and crew deserve to be commended.
In watching the march, one of the things I initially applauded was the wide-range of organizations which partnered with NAN for the march. From the early hours, I watched representatives from group after group take to the podium to deliver 2 minute sound bytes, with each speaker hoping that their words might rouse the crowd just enough to make it to the evening news’ replay. There was talk of international relations and Syria, equal pay, stand your ground, worker’s rights, criminal justice, environmental justice, restoring the voting rights act, stop and frisk, immigration reform, education reform, hip-hop, LGBT-community rights, and I’m pretty sure I heard something about a partridge and a pear tree. And, it was all couched under the big top tent of “civil rights.”
Part of the problem in becoming over-inclusive in the ever expanding umbrella of civil rights is that the message–along with the marching orders (bad puns aside)–becomes highly diluted, if not non-existent altogether. While it was smart of Sharpton to welcome the support and participation of a robustly diverse cadre of causes, grouping them all together in that space sans a thread more tightly woven than simply “civil rights,” made for a motley mix that didn’t always seem to fit. This presents an even bigger challenge when seeking to tie everything up with any particular plan of action. Much like walking under a real umbrella, if each person’s steps are not properly coordinated, not only does the walk become an awkward one, but someone is going to end up shortchanged on protection.
It is undeniable that nearly all of the organizations that were represented had interrelated causes. Each, in some way, spoke to issues of inequality and the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream of an equal and level playing field in the land of opportunity that is America. Every group deserved to be at the table and should be, on some level, included in the conversation. However, despite attempts by revisionist historians to co-opt and sanitize Dr. King’s ideology in the name of politically correctness out of an effort to paint him as a non-threatening moderate, the original march 50 years ago was clear and fairly narrow in its focus. It was about jobs and economic equality. While both those issues were certainly mentioned on Saturday, it was not at all a singular focus point.
In 1963, there were myriad ills facing the black community–much like there are today. The term “civil rights” was generally understood to have a focus on issues related to the black community. Gradually, that term has evolved to include all sorts of groups that have piggy-backed off of a theme of “equality” but who weren’t necessarily at the starting block with us. This expansion should not be unwelcome, but it should not cause us to lose sight on our fundamental goals. There have always been allies outside of our community who have understood the importance of synergy among common causes, but Saturday may not have been the appropriate venue to give them a mic at the same damn time. Further, I do question whether all of the groups constituencies who were invited to share the march’s platform have had our backs of late when we have needed them most.
There is already the legitimate notion that marching is no longer the most effective weapon against an enemy that has become increasingly insidious and sophisticated. Those who argue that the 60′s means of protest is not a viable vehicle for progress in 2013 may not be entirely wrong. However beyond outdated tactics, we only further complicate the road to progress when we fail to articulate a clear message with equally clear calls for specific action. If Rev. Sharpton’s march failed to deliver in any particular place, that was it.
We must transition from simply highlighting our problems with Negro spiritual-like rhetoric and prepare to roll up our sleeves and do the difficult thought work of engineering new solutions and effective strategies that will be effective in the changing landscape of civil rights in 2013. Moreover, once these solutions–grassroots and localized, in my estimation–are developed, we have to be willing to harness our enthusiasm across sustained campaigns for change. This will occur first in our individual homes, then block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood; not in the presence of mass crowds or in front of camera crews. Until we are ready for that onerous task, Dr. King’s vision will remain in part a Dream deferred.
Latest posts by Charles F. Coleman Jr. (see all)
- What Obama Can Learn From George W. Bush - October 8, 2013
- What Now? Expanding the Umbrella of Civil Rights - August 28, 2013
- The Misnomer of Progress: A Peek Inside MLK’s Dream at 50 - August 26, 2013