The Falsehoods of a Civil Rights Movement Legacy

January 15, 2013

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial statue, National Parks Service, Washington, DC, August 2, 2012. (NPS via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws, as this is a 2D picture of a 3D sculpture.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial statue, National Parks Service, Washington, DC, August 2, 2012. (NPS via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws, as this is a 2D picture of a 3D sculpture.

Well, it’s not officially Martin Luther King Day yet, but since Dr. King was actually born on January 15, 1929, better for me to talk about him today than next week. Especially with President Obama’s second inaugural going on at the same time. But what a legacy! Yet his generation of civil rights activists and righteous protesters have done as much harm to his legacy as have conservatives invoking his “I Have a Dream” speech every time they’re called out on their bigotry.

Yeah, that’s right, I said it! One of the benefits — if you want to call it that — of being born in ’69 is that I’ve witnessed the devolution of the Civil Rights Movement and its leaders and followers into a gauntlet of gatekeepers who expect everyone from my generation to start every sentence paying homage to their sacrifices. I have no problems with that, at least in theory. But the reality is that most folks from the Civil Rights generation — at least the successful ones — made few if any sacrifices for “the cause.” They were in the right place at the right time with the right education and managed to find jobs, careers and positions of influence while the least fortunate of us all saw few material or psychological benefits from Dr. King’s ultimate sacrifice.

I’ve already talked at length about Estelle Abel, a former Mount Vernon High School Science Department chair (see my posts “My Last Day” from June ’11 and “In-Abel-ed” from June ’12 for much more). Her soliloquy about sacrifice and the Civil Rights Movement was supposed to make me feel bad about letting Black Mount Vernon, New York down because I only graduated fourteenth in my class out of over five hundred students. There are others, former and current teachers, professors, librarians, politicians, writers, producers, editors, pastors, politicians, bosses and charlatans who’ve made a point to discuss their elitist notions of the Civil Rights Movement and generation with me.

Hundreds of thousands descended on Washington, DC's Lincoln Memorial August 28, 1963. (Marines' Photo via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Hundreds of thousands descend on Lincoln Memorial August 28, 1963. (Marines’ Photo via Wikipedia). In public domain.

But most — if not all — of these folks are wrong about their glorified view of the Movement and its legacy four and a half decades later. For college educated, middle class African Americans, life has gotten better, even with bigotry, glass ceilings, DWB, a less stable economy, and the conservative backlash that has gone on unabated since the three years before Dr. King’s assassination. For Blacks not as fortunate, almost nothing has changed, at least not for the better.

Some of it, to be sure (and to cut Bill Cosby some slack), is because of individual choices and poor decision-making. Folks, however, can rarely make decisions outside of their own context and circumstances — think outside of the box, in other words — without a significant amount of help. Poverty in all of its forms is just as grinding now as it was a half-century ago. To expect people from the generations since Dr. King to suddenly forget their poverty, abuse, neglect and exploitation and give praise to a generation where many but far from most made sacrifices for the Movement is ludicrous.

I’m certain that had Dr. King lived over the past forty-five years, he wouldn’t have stood by to allow his generation to constantly criticize the under-forty-five as slackers and immature and unfocused, as folks more concerned with money than equality. King likely would’ve made the point that the post-Civil Rights Generations X and Y are merely a reflection of their upbringing, of their parents and teachers and mentors’ nurturing and training. He would’ve made the same point that others from his generation like the late law professor and scholar-activist Derrick Bell has made over the years. That fighting racism, educational neglect and economic exploitation requires more tools than the moral high-ground, protests, marches, a sympathetic media and obvious redneck tactics. The Movement is itself a shifting terrain that requires new tools and tactics to achieve small victories over a long period of time, longer than most folks from the era are willing to admit.

I actually don’t have a strong ax to grind against the Civil Rights generation. Without folks like Dr. King or Jesse Jackson, Medgar Evers or Ella Baker, I wouldn’t have found myself in a gifted-track program in middle school or high school in the ’80s. But let’s not act as if my life was a walk in the park. The legacy of the Civil Rights era never stopped a fist from being thrown into my face by my now ex-stepfather. It never kept us from going on welfare or kept two of my siblings from bring diagnosed as mentally retarded.

NYPD Stop and Frisk caption (actual details for photo unknown), August 2012. (http://thinkprogress.org).

NYPD Stop and Frisk caption (actual details for photo unknown), August 2012. (http://thinkprogress.org).

Nor did the Civil Rights Movement’s legacy stop teachers and professors from putting up barriers to my success as a student or employers from putting up a glass ceiling in an attempt to slow my career advance. It never stopped me from being followed and frisked by police or harassed by overzealous security guards. It’s never paid one of my bills, kept food on my plate or kept me from experiencing homelessness. It’s never even been a source of pride, because that would mean that the Civil Rights Movement and its legacy would belong to me as much as it does to the people who allegedly marched with Dr. King.

I can’t wait for those who cling almost in desperation to the idyllic legacy of Dr. King and the cause to retire and fade away, for the ’60s to truly be over. Maybe that’s when folks from the post-’60s generation — folks like me who care about economic and educational equity, social justice and spiritual transformation — will be able to make an impact on our nation’s sorry state of consciousness without pouring libations to folks who gave up on Dr. King’s work ages ago.


Eugene Robinson Disses Black Generation X

June 8, 2011

Disintegration Book Cover, June 8, 2011. Donald Earl Collins. Note the beat-up look of the cover, thanks to my wife, who had it for more than five months before I read it last week.

I finally got around to reading Eugene Robinson’s Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America this week. Despite my doubts, I hoped that the famed Washington Post columnist, MSNBC rock star and Pulitzer Prize winner would say something profound, or at the least, provocative. Not only did I not learn anything new in the three and half hours it took for me to read Disintegration. I learned that Robinson, like so many accomplished Blacks of his generation, doesn’t see Black Generation Xers when talking about the state of African America. The generational divide, perhaps the greatest example of disintegration that Robinson should’ve discussed, he rendered invisible throughout his book.

I know I’m late by Black literati standards in taking so long to sit down and read this book. After all, I bought the book this past Christmas as my personal birthday present. I had a feeling, though, that somehow, this book really wasn’t for me, a forty-one year-old Black Gen Xer who’s spent about half of my life thinking about this and other related issues. To slightly misquote Arnold Schwarzenegger from Total Recall, “Welcome to the party, Robinson!”

Over and over again in Disintegration, Robinson referred to the positions of Black Baby Boomers in a splintered Black America, as well as to the hopes, fears and aspirations of millennial generation African Americans (particularly on issues like the decline of interracial prejudice and educational attainment). I guess because Robinson mostly relied on his personal journey as a guide to understanding the history of African America’s disintegration — including using his sons as a time line template — it meant that folks born between ’65 and ’85 didn’t really count.

Unless, of course, they were part of the Abandoned class, the ones who found themselves increasingly poor and isolated after ’68 in communities like Shaw and U Street in DC. Or, in my case, on the South Side and other pockets of Mount Vernon, New York by the late 70s and ’80s. Then Robinson’s sympathetic voice kicked in, one which acknowledged all of the ills that one in four Blacks face every day. Still, Black Gen Xers are only in the Abandoned in Robinson’s mind and words by proxy.

There are far more obvious errors of omission in Robinson’s somewhat thought-provoking, 237-page column than leaving out an entire generation of post-Civil Rights era Black folk. Like Robinson stumbling his way into Thomas Sowell’s “model minority” argument like a punch-drunk boxer in the final round of a fight. Or, really, like a writer running out of steam at the end of a manuscript.

Robinson’s fifteen-page chapter “The Emergence (Part 1): Coming To America” is all about a new immigration wave of Blacks from sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean who are more highly educated than any other immigrant group arriving these days (and are better educated than most Americans, for that matter). Yes this is true in the aggregate. But besides a few examples that serve to exaggerate more than enlighten, Robinson’s analysis sounds like Sowell’s arguments from ’72. Only without the conservative policy implications and with a generous lack of sophistication in understanding the diversity within these immigrant groups.

There’s also the use of these troubling terms of Transcendent and Mainstream, both of which evoke a ’70s-style thinking about African Americans who’ve “made it.” How about “New Black Elite” and “Successful Yet Struggling Black Middle,” both of which are more accurate descriptors? I understand that Robinson’s purpose with Disintegration was to poke and prod readers, albeit in a light way. Still, the book seems written for what he would describe as aspiring Transcendents who are far too busy climbing social ladders to think about cultural and community disintegration post-1968, rather than those of us who do.

Which brings me back to Robinson’s Black Gen X blind spot. How is it possible that someone with the panache and diligence of Robinson could forget about the 26-46 year-old demographic in Disintegration? The reasons are as plain as the positions of prestige that Transcendent African American Baby Boomers occupy and cling to like a man with a fingernail death grip on a precipice. (And, despite Robinson’s protestations to the contrary, by his own definition, he and his family are Transcendent. Who else gets to hang out with Oprah and Vernon Jordan or do interviews with President Obama without being Transcendent?)

Me and my generation of Blacks had been written off by Robinson’s gangs of elites and wannabe elites by the time I was a college freshman at the University of Pittsburgh in ’87. Our ideas about the disintegration of Black America and what that has meant over the past forty years are undoubtedly fresher. Yet we as a group aren’t asked about our ideas. Apparently when Black America disintegrated, we fell into a black hole. At least in Mr. Robinson’s neighborhood.


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