May 012014

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Fiftieth Year Commemorations, Now Time For Agitation: The Unfinished Agenda

Anniversaries of important historical events prompt reflection.  Last summer, the United States celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  And in the fall, we mourned again for four little girls – Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carol Robertson and Cynthia Wesley – slaughtered in “Bombingham’s” 16th Street Baptist Church.

In January, we remembered President Lyndon Johnson’s State of the Union Address when he declared,

Let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined; as the session which enacted the most far-reaching tax cut of our time; as the session which declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States.”

In June, we will mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the beginning of Freedom Summer.   Next year, we will celebrate fifty years since the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Over the course of three years, we will reflect about the battles fought to win and enforce the rights of the descendants of slaves to be full citizens.   We will honor the fallen heroes of these battles and celebrate those who remain with us, humbly thanking them for their sacrifices.   We will look to see how far we have come and debate whether we have come far enough.  And we will struggle with the truth that progress has been made, but we have a long way to go before we can say that the fight is over.

100 years after slavery ended, the Civil Rights Movement and the legislation that resulted finished the work of legalizing the process of making African Americans full citizens.  What legislation like the Civil Rights Act did not do, is finish the work of actualizing freedom and equal opportunity.

African Americans remain marginalized.  We can look at just about any set of data — the achievement gap in schools, unemployment, underemployment and never-employment, quality and affordable housing, wealth building, safety, health disparities, lives limited by the oversight and surveillance of the legal system, hunger, food and commerce deserts, quality of public infrastructure and so many other things — and see that we live disproportionately in the places of pain and struggle.

And those of us who have been the greatest beneficiaries of the movement, who were able to go to good schools, get our college and advanced degrees, find jobs that gave us access to the middle and upper middle class and even start building some wealth, find ourselves vulnerable in the aftermath of the Great Recession.   Our children and grandchildren are going to be feeling these same ripples from the new economy that has emerged for many years to come.

Ella Baker, one of our beloved civil and human rights leaders once said, “we who believe in freedom cannot rest” – a call to action as relevant now as when she said it in 1968.   The full quote gives us another dimension to this call to action:

ntil the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a White mother’s son – we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.

Chicago is in the throes of a massacre of young black men and women.  And we don’t seem to know what to do about it.  We wring our hands.  Decide that some lives are clearly not as valuable as others.  Pray that the violence can be contained within the geographic boundaries known as the South and West Sides and not seep into our safe places.   Hope that we can get through the summer.

No quick fixes exist but we know that when young people understand their value and live in vibrant thriving communities where people have jobs paying living wages and the city makes an investment in schools and public services, they do better.  When they have access to jobs, instead of trying to thrive in a climate with a 92% youth unemployment rate, they do better.  When they have a coping mechanism, other than rage and violence, they do better. When they feel a sense of community that is supportive and loving, one that is not a gang or a clique, they do better.  When they, like their ancestors, live freely and have real opportunities, they do better.

And we also know that none of this will change, unless we demand these changes.  When President Johnson was trying to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he understood that he needed to have people in the streets holding him accountable, holding the system accountable.

This radical experiment in democracy that is America fails until we all get free and equal.  And no one has ever gotten free without fighting for it.

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

– Frederick Douglass 

Clarence Wood, President
Coalition of African American Leaders (COAL)

Click here for the May 2014 1.0 Issue of COAL News

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