|Civil Rights Leaders See 2008 as Year of Movement 'Beyond Freedom' to Equality
By: Hazel Trice Edney
Originally posted 1/4/2008
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Leaving what could be described as the most intense year for civil rights activism since before the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. nearly 40 years ago, civil rights leaders vowed this week to move into 2008 with the vigor to go beyond the freedoms gained in the 1960s to the equality that is yet to be achieved.
“On Dr. King’s birthday 40 years ago, he spoke on the triple evils of racism, capitalism and militarism,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. told the NNPA News Service this week.
“And today it’s still racism, capitalism without checks and balances and militarism that’s eating up our budget and still undermining our ability to grow. Those triple evils remain real.”
He continues, “We’ve got freedom in public accommodations and the right to vote. The issue now is to go beyond freedom to the fight for equality, equal access and equal protection - equal access to health care, equal access to education, equal access to capital, equal access to industry and technology.”
Jackson, who last month in New York led a protest against sub-prime lending that has resulted in a mortgage crisis, says his RAINBOW/Push Coalition will start 2008 with a Wall Street Summit Jan. 5-9 demanding the end to record home foreclosures, which have disparately affected African-Americans.
“Around the country, we’re seeing right out, straight out racial steering. The instances of sub-prime loans are 40 percent Latinos and 60 percent Black,” Jackson says. “The issue of restructuring and not repossession, it clearly affects us in every city and every state.”
The year 2008 being the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King by James Earl Ray in Memphis is expected to illuminate the necessity for African-Americans to take inventory of their gains as a race in order to determine next steps.
“This has been the year of the rejuvenation of civil rights activism,” says the Rev. Al Sharpton.
His National Action Network led protests that caused the firing of radio talk host Don Imus last April, drew tens of thousands of protestors to Jena, La., on behalf of the Jena Six on Sept. 20; and thousands more to D. C. for a march around the U. S. Department of Justice November 16.
“We saw more people marching - whether it was Sean Bell in New York or Jena or Washington, D.C. - than we’ve seen in many years,” Sharpton says in an interview. “But, we’ve got to turn that mobilization into organization and then legislation. And that’s the priority for 2008.”
Sharpton says NAN will hold a special conference this year during the anniversary of the King assassination.
“This is the first year that we’re moving the National Action Network convention out of New York in April and we’re going to do it in Memphis from April 1-4 and end on the actual anniversary of Dr. King’s Assassination with a huge march in Memphis to remember what happened 40 years ago,” Sharpton says. “It will sort of assess where we have not come in the last 40 years. That will be the convention theme.”
Where we have “not come” was made clear over the past year as the Southern Poverty Law Center reported a 40 percent rise in race hate groups since 2000 and one racial incident after another sparked protests around the nation.
In January 2007, the story was still blaring about comedian Michael Richard’s repeatedly calling a Black man the N-Word from the stage in a crowded Los Angeles comedy club in November. Within a few months, talk show host Don Imus’ on-air “nappy-headed hos” insult to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team dominated the airwaves and the streets. Meanwhile a string of high profile and racially volatile incidents dominated the news all year.
Among them were: Sean Bell, shot and killed in a round of 50 bullets fired by New York City Police officers Nov. 25, 2006, just hours before his wedding; Martin Lee Anderson, 14, of Tallahassee, Fla., a sickle cell anemia patient who died Jan. 5 in a juvenile boot-camp, complaining that he could not breath as he was roughed up by camp guards, who were later found not-guilty in his death; Genarlow Wilson, finally released from prison Oct. 26 by the Georgia Supreme Court after serving two years of a 10-year sentence in an Atlanta prison for having oral sex with another teenager; Megan Williams, 20, the West Virginia woman who for a week in early September was tortured and made to eat dog and rat feces by six Whites who repeatedly called her a N*****; Kyle Coppin, 18, an unarmed teen carrying a hairbrush who was shot 10 times Nov. 12 and then handcuffed by New York City Police officers; and Mychal Bell, the only member of the famous Jena Six of Jena, La., who remains incarcerated after a school yard brawl connected to nooses that were hung in a so-called “White Tree.”
Amidst the already tense atmosphere, on June 28 last year, the U. S. Supreme Court’s ruling against race-conscious public school assignments in Louisville, Ken., and Seattle, Wash., setting a precedent that activists say assaulted the spirit of Brown v. Board of Education and sent a chilling affect over other such school desegregation plans across the nation.
Within Black communities, joblessness, homicide and incarceration continued at astronomical rates and most inner cities remain economically, socially and educationally traumatized by White and middle class Black flight during the 1970s.
“We’re exporting jobs and capital, importing guns and drugs; therefore there’s an increase in violence,” says Jackson. “Taxes are up and services are down. We have first class jails and second class schools. That’s the present urban policy. Infrastructure is collapsing. We’re investing billions in Iraq, billions in Pakistan and pennies at home.”
Heads of major Black economic and civil rights organizations are poised to continue the struggle.
“Our desire is that the enforcement of civil rights laws be given priority by the new Attorney General [Michael B. Mukasey],” says National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial, “And that these issues be part of the discourse during the presidential campaign season, which coincides with the 40th anniversary of the death of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy whose legacies were the protection of civil rights in this nation.”
NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, reflecting on 2007, says the work of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization remained overwhelming.
“For almost 100 years, we’ve fought against racial discrimination. And while the climate has changed, we still see much of the same,” Bond says. “The mortgage crisis has ensnared too many people of color – we’ve filed suit against some of the prime offenders. We’re gearing up for a massive [voter] registration drive in 2008 and will insure that everyone who can votes and that every vote cast is honestly counted.”
Bond adds, “Police-community relationships continue to occupy our branches across the country as we receive reports of brutality and mis-treatment almost daily. The list is long, but protecting against discrimination and remedying discriminatory acts remains a main priority.”
The battles that continued and those that started last year will carry over, says Sharpton.
“Top priorities are to follow up from where we have left off. We must continue to have strong hate crime legislation and we must make it a central issue in the 2008 election. We did get it in the last debate, but we need it to be a resonating issue,” he says.
According to Jackson, trying to gain equality through presidential politics will be among the strategies, but is not the ultimate route.
“The presidential politics tend to avoid the tough issues because they are controversial. For example, the issue of stopping the flow of guns, they avoid that trying not to offend the [National Rifle Association],” Jackson says.
Rather than politicians leading, Jackson says, just as 2007 was a banner year for activism, it must be the voices of people that will ultimately make impact.
“Change usually comes bottom up and not top down,” Jackson says. “The people must demand urban policy that’s comprehensive. The people must demand an end to mass foreclosures. The people must demand a commitment to quality public education, equal high quality for all children. And that becomes our challenge.”