Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Civil Rights Movement Needs to Overcome Its Fears…

June 10, 2008 by  
Filed under News, Politics

( Sen. Barack Obama will accept his nomination as the Democratic candidate for president on Aug. 28, exactly 45 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic speech at the March on Washington. For those of us fascinated by such things, the occasion suggests less a coincidence than a harmonic convergence of cosmic dimensions. Just think: A brown-skinned American, having been judged according to “the content of his character,” will be taking aim at the nation’s highest office. What’s more, he will be taking the helm of a party that, just a few decades ago, was sorely divided over the mere inclusion of blacks in its ranks.

For some civil rights loyalists, myself very much included, it’s hard not to feel a spine-tingling thrill. But for a surprising number of others, the overwhelming feeling last week was apprehension. “I knew the real war was on,” one friend told me. “Obama had crossed the point of no return. It was like when Jackie Robinson finally made it to the major leagues. . . . Now the gloves would come off, and failure [in November], I knew, would feel like we all had lost it — all of black America.”

Some are concerned that the fall campaign will prove ugly and divisive, or that politicians and cynics might use an Obama loss to conclude that the United States still isn’t ready for an African American commander in chief. Others worry that the euphoria surrounding Obama’s rise may deflect attention from ground-level realities still crying out to be fixed: endemic poverty, police brutality, cruelly unequal schools and foreign quagmires that drain the nation’s economy and cripple its morale. Some of the heirs to King’s movement look at the prospect of a black president who might tackle these problems and worry that the ultimate victory may prove too much to hope for.

Part of the problem is simply political. Black voters, of course, have long demonstrated their willingness to cast ballots for white candidates. Obama’s series of trailblazing victories in largely white settings have tempted civil rights advocates to believe that the country has definitively changed. But then there’s the nagging refrain that Rory Kennedy, a daughter of the martyred Robert F. Kennedy and an Obama supporter, heard from one white Pennsylvania resident: “White people look out for white people, and black people look out for black people.” This uneasy coexistence of inspirational progress and disheartening inertia is what frustrates the watchful advocates of civil rights.

Friends I’ve talked to are disturbed by forecasts in the blogosphere and elsewhere that an Obama victory would usher in the end of the movement, as if his triumph would somehow signal the end of racism. I certainly understand those fears. Look at the joy following the Emancipation Proclamation. The happy prospect of full citizenship and 40 acres and a mule was quickly replaced by sharecropping, lynching and Jim Crow. Or pessimists might point to Brown v. Board of Education: More than 50 years after that decision mandated school desegregation, no one is yet sure what “all deliberate speed” means. Every advance, the worriers argue, has been blocked by an equal and opposite reversal. The continuum of the black American experience has often been characterized by a Newtonian inevitability that has left our dreams, in the words of Langston Hughes, drying up “like a raisin in the sun.”

African Americans who cite the fitful nature of blacks’ forward motion are often condemned as ungrateful naysayers who blame everything on racism without acknowledging the failure of some blacks to take full advantage of the nation’s bountiful offerings. But such responses — more visceral than thoughtful — ignore the fact that blacks’ most vocal leaders are often their most outspoken critics. W.E.B. Du Bois, for example, reserved some of his most pointed remarks for blacks who hid their own lack of accomplishment behind vague grumblings about unfairness. “How any human being whose wonderful fortune it is to live in the 20th century should under ordinarily fair advantages despair of life is almost unbelievable,” he wrote in a 1905 letter. “And if in addition to this that person is, as I am, of Negro lineage, with the hopes and yearnings of hundreds of millions of human souls dependent in some degree on her striving, then her bitterness amounts to crime.”

In a remarkably short span of time, the hopes and yearnings of millions of black voters have become singularly dependent on Obama’s striving. The worriers are right to insist that progress requires eternal vigilance, but even the most jaded among us should allow that vigilance is best pursued when leavened with a judicious helping of hope. After all, the message of hope that catapulted Obama to historic heights differs little from the intrepid optimism that fueled the civil rights movement — itself propelled by the Judeo-Christian faith in “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” which continues to deeply influence African American thought and activism.

The seed of hope requires careful tending these days. The activism of King’s generation was buoyed by a burst of postwar optimism powerful enough to encourage Americans to see themselves as fellow strivers in a battle for national prosperity. But later generations have found themselves warding off bitterness in a declining economy in which the wealthy get wealthier, the middle class struggles, and the poor remain stuck at the bottom. Across economic and social divides, irony is our common tongue, cynicism and sarcasm the twinned lenses through which we view the world. From such a perspective, an Obamavictory in November would suggest — falsely — that the nation has indeed overcome its history of morally indefensible inequality (despite having never fully confronted that bleak heritage or taken responsibility for it), while his defeat would merely be confirmation that racism trumps all.

It’s not that simple, though. And to his credit, Obama, while refusing any measure of pessimism, has expressed a vision that is hardly rose-colored. He has balanced his call for confidence and optimism with a clear-eyed scrutiny that his soaring oratory often overshadows. “I love America too much,” he writes in his most recent book, “The Audacity of Hope,” “am too invested in what this country has become, too committed to its institutions, its beauty, and even its ugliness, to focus entirely on the circumstances of its birth. But neither can I brush aside the magnitude of the injustice done, or erase the ghosts of generations past, or ignore the open wound, the aching spirit, that ails this country still.”

A similar balance informs his view of the civil rights movement that made his ascent possible. Obama’s attitude toward the struggle’s heroes and heroines, while not overly reverent, is consistently respectful. Their efforts, he has written, gave blacks of his generation “more room to maneuver.” And sure enough, Obama’s own maneuverings — from his days as a community activist to his masterful presidential campaign — seem a natural continuation of the path described by the civil rights icon Andrew Young in his memoir, “An Easy Burden” Young and his peers regarded “political office as a way of sustaining what we had done and needed to do again, rather than as a deviation from our history of collective struggle.”

Obama seems to share the political pragmatism that is so deeply embedded alongside the idealism of the civil rights movement, and that should encourage its loyalists — even the pessimistic ones — to place some real trust in him. He sees himself as part of the civil rights struggle and is thoroughly aware of its history — invoking, for instance, the famous 1964 murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi (two Jewish, one black) in his speech last Wednesday to AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, on the morning after he clinched the nomination. Because of his rootedness, Obama knows that poor black people are not going away, and he knows that other problems that transcend poverty — AIDS, out-of-wedlock births, the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases among black teenage girls, high abortion rates, poor academic performance — will still be around as well. Nothing in his career so far suggests that he would permit such concerns to be shunted to the margins of his agenda — even one necessarily crowded with issues important to other groups and to the nation at large. His supporters, if they truly agree with his message of inclusion, won’t let that happen.

Nor will spokesmen for black concerns. While the civil rights movement’s leadership is undergoing significant generational change (a process already under way at groups such as the NAACP, where I work), its members, like their predecessors, would expect access and an attentive audience at the Obama White House — not because they are black but because they represent voters whose support helped launch him into office. Similarly, those same individuals will do far more than function as mindless cheerleaders; they will subject him to intense scrutiny and, when he deserves it, fierce criticism.

So after this astonishing week, I’m putting my well-honed cynicism to rest, if only for a moment. Forty years after King, the dream remains valid — and so does the need to fight for it. Although Obama is celebrated for his flights of rhetoric, he also has a knack for getting right to the point. “As much as I insist that things have gotten better,” he writes in “The Audacity of Hope,” “I am mindful of this truth as well: Better isn’t good enough.”

Written By Jabari Asim

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