The legacy of the Civil Rights Movement a half-century removed from the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech remains a mixed bag, especially for poor Blacks and other persons of color. This, of course, isn’t to say that the Civil Rights Movement and those who fought, bled, and died for civil rights and Black equality aren’t to be honored by us. After all, White supremacists assassinated, bombed, jailed, beat up, hosed down and sicked dogs on and scores of civil rights activists and innocents, especially in 1963. But the fact that I needed to add this disclaimer is a significant part of the problem of the movement’s legacy. The knee-jerk kneeling and crossing of ourselves on behalf of the Civil Rights generation has all but obscured the fact that what mostly remains of the movement’s successes are mere symbols.
It remains beyond strange that we bow to the recently dead and the still living instead of to the long-dead who did the backbreaking work in paving the road for the Civil Rights Movement in the first place. From escaped slaves to lynched Blacks, from Nat Turner and Martin Delany to Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, their sacrifices were so much greater, and for so little in their own lives. Yet the Civil Rights generation enjoys honors as if they somehow generated the milestones of integration, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 out of thin air. As if the movement’s victories were the equivalent of a modern-day Jesus walking on water.
For those who may well have witnessed these miracles, this is tantamount to civil rights sacrilege. But for millions of us – especially those who remain in poverty – the civil rights legacy is a mirage of symbols. More than twenty years ago, the late civil rights law professor Derrick Bell wrote about a character named Jesse B. Semple (a character originally invented by Langston Hughes) in his best-seller Faces at the Bottom of the Well (1992). Semple, in response to Bell’s claims of significant strides made during the movement, said, “most whites and lots of black folks rely on symbols to support their belief that people have come a long way since slavery and segregation to the present time.”
Two decades later, and Bell’s words through Semple ring even truer today. With Black unemployment at 14 percent and one in four African Americans living below the poverty line (including two in five Black children), it seems that the reach of the Civil Rights Movement has long exceeded its grasp. The MLK Holiday and President Barack Obama’s election and re-election, while hard-won battles, are mere symbols out of efforts to address the racism and poverty that ordinary Blacks and other people of color face every day, as both are on the rise. Even the two single biggest achievements of the movement — the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – have been weakened over the past three decades by all three branches of our increasingly anti-civil rights government. They stand as symbols now. They are hardly pieces of landmark legislation that would provide a path out of poverty and discrimination.
The real beneficiaries of the Civil Rights Movement have been Blacks on the cusp of the American middle class in the 1960s and 1970s, the ones with the education and social pedigree necessary to become part of the American elite over the past forty years. The same folks who’ve said repeatedly in the past couple of decades that those Blacks who remain undereducated, in poverty and likely to go to jail are in this predicament due to hip-hop and rap or because they wear saggy-baggy jeans. More symbols, but this time, to persecute rather than to uplift. It’s their fault they’re in poverty, say the Bill Cosbys and Don Lemons of this group. This despite the fact that the ladder to the Black elite has been pulled up by both the eroding of the civil rights victories from a half-century ago and the huge wealth gap between rich and poor, Black and White that has become a gulf in recent years.
To turn around and then say that folks who have benefited little to zero from the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement should then take on this mantle now is a bit disingenuous. No, I don’t think that I or anyone who was born far too late to march with Dr. King in August 1963 owe the altar of civil rights any prayers, libations or tithes. If we need to be activists in this age, we need to move beyond relics, symbols and elitist notions of civil rights triumphs.