Half Century Since March on Washington: Has Black Activism Weakened?
"I think that some leaders are now reluctant to engage in public struggle because President Barack is in the White House. But, I would remind you that a public demonstration for justice would not be a march on the President. That would be unfair," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, president and CEO the Chicago-based Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. "We supported Kennedy over Nixon, but we still had the march on Washington. We supported Johnson over Goldwater, but we still had the march on Selma."
Though public demonstrations by black activists have been scaled back significantly since the election of America's first black president, the intense focus on issues is still the same, Jackson says.
"In 1963, we were marching for the right to vote. Now we're marching to the polls by the millions all over the nation. Activism now is the election of city councils and state legislatures, Congress and President of the United States," Jackson says. "When you fight, you fight with the whole armor of God - litigation, legislation, registration, demonstration. All of those are forms of fighting....Even in 1963, we had won the '54 Supreme Court decision, the '55 Montgomery bus boycott, and students across the South marched on Selma. Even then, we used litigation, legislation, registration and demonstration. We've always used several forms of fighting."
Jackson admits that the current lack of street activism that had resurged during the eight years of the Bush Administration may be necessary to make ultimate progress on issues through the first four years of the Obama Administration.
"We have made milestones politically - two African-American governors and an African-American president - but, we still have a disproportionate number of infant mortality, shorter life expectancy, discrimination in hiring, in home foreclosures and in student loan debt. So, it's mid day in our politics, but mid night in our economy," Jackson says.
He was referring to the nation's jobless rate that has neared double digits while the black unemployment rate has passed 14 percent and well above that for black males.
Street demonstrations are not only still needed to fight remaining inequities, but to counteract the uprising of white-led right wing activism around the nation in the wake of health care legislation, Jackson says.
"The evidence of hostility is shown clearly in the town hall meetings", he says. "We are still fighting. But we're winning. The reason why the right wing is acting so hostile is because they are feeling desperate. They lost the White House. We won."
He concludes, "Our agenda has not changed. It's just that instead of having an adversary in the White House, we have an ally."
The National Urban League's Marc Morial agrees.
"We have to be fundamentally realistic. Our constituencies voted for this President ... black leadership's roll is to support the public policies that we believe will benefit our constituencies. I think we must realize that personality politics in my opinion are [unnecessary] when there's an opportunity to work along with a president for the shaping of public policy that benefits our community. Having said that, I believe it's important to recognize that black leadership's roll is to hold every elected official accountable. And I sometimes wonder why people say we have to hold Obama accountable, when I don't hear that kind of conversation from some people about the Congress of the United States, congressional leadership, about the governors and the mayors."
Morial says it is much easier to work with a president who has been historically friendly toward civil rights and equality.
“Some of the fights and the pushing and the shoving takes place beyond the view of the media. In the previous administration, sometimes we had no choice but to hold press events, to write letters and to do things,” Morial says. “There’s an opportunity with this administration that if we access the system, if we push our agenda aggressively, if we seek to meet with and participate in shaping the public policy as some of us are. It’s not just about what we say publicly. It’s about what the results of the policies and the programs are.”
Morial says he has been working with the Department of Labor on accessing green jobs and green job-training in the black community in order to lower the black unemployment rate.
Political observers have intently watched the first 200 days of the Obama presidency.
Dr. Julia Hare, co-founder of the San Francisco-based Black Think Tank says while black leaders should not treat Obama any differently than the 43 white presidents who came before him, there does appear to be a need for more activism on economic equity.
“I don’t believe they’ve become too soft on this president,” she said. “They didn’t press white presidents on issues such as ‘draconian drug laws’ and ‘police profiling’.”
But, Hare observes there has appeared to be a fear factor in black leadership’s reluctance to criticize the first black president on issues such as the need to get economic stimulus dollars to the poor faster instead of to banks and financial institutions that caused the crisis.
“Some of them are terrified of being accused of being haters, jealous of the man,” Hare said. “The financial crisis is killing people. And of course if it’s making white people sick; then it is murdering black people.”
U. S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Cali.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus which now has 17 subcommittee chairs and four full chairs in Congress, says the president is doing a remarkable job given all that’s on his plate. She says it’s a relief to not have to fight like they did with the Bush Administration.
“We met with the Attorney General Eric Holder. He gets it on mandatory minimum, on the devastation of this policy on African-American males in terms of crack cocaine and powder cocaine disparity. We’re working on that, straight up, out front, we’ve talked to him about it and we’re working on it. And there are many, many issues like that,” she says. “So, this wouldn’t have happened, I know, under a different administration. The president gets it. ... When you look at what he’s done already, it’s just amazing.”
She concludes that giving praise when politicians do right is just as important as criticizing them when something is done wrong.
“The positive is what we need to accentuate. We have a very forward-thinking, progressive, bold agenda and that’s what we’re working on in terms of the Congressional Black Caucus agenda, but also the president’s agenda, which 99 percent of the time is in sync. So, I see us as being in partnership with members of Congress with the Executive Branch that speaks to the black community, communities of color, but probably the whole country.” •