A march for justice organized by radicals a half-century ago was commemorated Saturday by a civil rights establishment now fully incorporated into the American mainstream. The result was a day filled with irony as speakers criticized a status quo that some black leaders have helped maintain.
Unlike the march in 1963, the updated version featured politicians, media personalities and even the public-relations presence of Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Where would today’s civil rights organizations be without their corporate sponsors?
Consumer research shows that the combined buying power of African Americans is expected to reach $1.1 trillion by 2015. The net worth of the 20 wealthiest blacks is more than $13 billion. And yet it took a $12.5 million line of credit from Wal-Mart to break ground on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial that thousands flocked to see after the march.
Speaker after speaker lamented the blatant effort by Republicans and the U.S. Supreme Court to suppress the black vote.
Left unsaid was that there are now more than 10,000 black elected officials in the country — some of whom are virtually ineffective because they lack political acumen and strategic skills.
Why vote at all if the politician in your gerrymandered black district is seeking just a title and not a job?
A common theme of the day was “fight to make America live up to her promise.” But what about the broken promises black people have made to themselves during the past 50 years, such as honoring the legacy of those who gave so much and received so little in return?
“We must remember the generations who carried themselves with great dignity in the face of unspeakable injustice and sacrificed so that the future would be assured for others,” Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. said, starting out on the right track. Then he veered into declaring that “the struggle must go on until the criminal justice system treats everyone fairly.”
Better that he had spoken to a larger truth: that far too many young men end up prey to the criminal justice system because of no guidance and poor decisions.
The commemorative march was organized by the activist TV talk-show host Al Sharpton and his National Action Network. As the keynote speaker, Sharpton gave a nod to the work black people need to do for themselves. He spoke out about the killing of young black men at the hands of other young black men.
And he admonished men not to “disrespect your women.”
Like many others, he spoke about civil rights activists who courageously confronted violent white supremacists. But no speaker so much as suggested that today’s youths take a risk — say, organizing residents of public-housing complexes to fight developers who want to evict them and turn their homes into condos.
In some urban areas, efforts by activists to do just that are often met with massive resistance from city officials — some of them former civil rights activists who are now politicians.
At the commemoration, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., founder of the Rainbow/PUSH coalition, began his remarks with “an appeal to the president and Congress to have mercy on our plea.”
Janaye Ingram, Washington bureau chief for the National Action Network, declared: “We lift up our grievances. . . . We are calling for national action to realize the dream.”
The Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, pastor of the Empowerment Temple A.M.E. Church in Baltimore, received some of the biggest applause when he said, “We want reparations.”
At times, it seemed as if the only meaningful action speakers could take was pressuring government for redress.
Said Sharpton: “We want the Congress to rewrite a voting rights act, and we want to protect our right to vote.” And if Congress refused, he was going to march on those states that have passed stricter voter ID laws. “And when they ask for our voter ID, take out a photo of Medgar Evers and Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner,” Sharpton said referring to the slain civil rights workers. “They gave their lives so we could vote.”
It was a nice idea. But as Stokely Carmichael, the 1960s activist who coined the term “black power,” once said of King’s nonviolent philosophy: It only works when the people you are appealing to have a conscience.
Perhaps it would be more effective to show the photos to the million-plus blacks who are eligible to vote but have not bothered to register.
Courtland Milloy is a columnist for The Washington Post.