“Can it be that people just don’t think things are bad enough to make the sacrifice to make social justice a part of their everyday life?”
Ms. Makeda finished with that question in her last post asking why we don’t seem to be able to carry on MLKs legacy. And it’s a good one. And I think the answer is undoubtedly yes. But it’s not the only reason. And I’m not so sure that that means that the other issues that she raises don’t provide some cover to explain why we don’t seem to have the same urgency as previous generations. Let’s see…
First of all, let’s start with the fact that the issues today are more amorphous and more complex than they were in the 1960s. In many ways, the early Civil Rights Movement had a rather simple message and focus for the Black community: To be granted legal access to all of the same opportunities that were afforded to Whites. And before anyone starts (rightly) saying that the 1960s encompassed more than just that, I want to clarify that I am making a distinction between the Civil Rights Movement and other alternative, yet complimentary strands, like the Black Power Movement, which had much loftier, and yes, amorphous goals of empowering the Black community to be self-determinant. Fast-forward to today and look at what’s happened in the Middle East with the Arab Spring vs. what’s happened in the US with Occupy. I once chatted briefly with one of the young Egyptian protest leaders immediately following the fall of Mubarak. I asked him what the secret was to getting such disparate coalitions to join together in one movement and his response was: “We just had to tie everything to Mubarak.” No jobs, too much US influence, no women’s rights, no infrastructure? It all fell at Mubarak’s feet. And so, a goal was born. To get rid of Mubarak. On the other hand, Occupy can’t come up with one goal, because the problems are not so simple to coalesce around one solution. I think this mirrors some of the issues with why we haven’t continued MLKs legacy. There are many reasons why the Civil Rights Movement “succeeded” where the Black Power Movement did not. But one, undoubtedly, is the fact that the goal could be provided in a USA Today soundbite which could then mobilize the masses to take specific actions and demonstrate specific results.
The integration argument seems to me to be the most important one. While I don’t think that we need middle class leaders to lead protest movements, I do wonder if the breakdown of a potential coalition between the “talented tenth” and the rest of the community leads to less action. There’s the Oprah problem of course, where people say, well Oprah’s made it so why can’t everyone else, which leads to a built-in and ready-made excuse for doing nothing. Which of course masks the real issues related to class and socioeconomic status.
This is not just relegated to the Black community either. Check out this chart and the related study and see what it says about how even “successful” movements, such as the feminist movement, can leave disadvantaged people behind when privilege is not explicitly taken into account. As a result, it would not be surprising to hear someone ask the question “Are we Carrying on Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes’ Legacy” sooner rather than later, if they aren’t already asking it now.
But that doesn’t really absolve us as non-actors completely. As Ms. Makeda said, MLK was shifting his focus to several paths beyond legal access when he was killed. Economic justice, jobs, inequality and poverty. Opposition to the Vietnam War. The articulation that “an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” And by edifice, he was thinking big…meaning systemic.
So now what…? Yes, things are amorphous. And yes, some of us have gotten ours. But really, what I think could be the biggest issue is that there is a sense of a lack of hope. I really wish that I’m wrong on this and perhaps the hope is just bubbling underneath, waiting for the catalyst to bring it out. And maybe it’s me…my problem and I need to open my eyes to find it out that I’m wrong. But I genuinely wonder…
If the March on Washington were tomorrow, and a 34 year old MLK was scheduled to speak, how many of us would even go instead of cynically saying: “that’s not going to do any good”? Would I?