Black Voices

50 Years After The March On Washington, Is Black America Free?

This article is the last in the Huffington Post series examining the state of Black America. To read more, click here.

“Free in 63.” In the late 1950s, that phrase could be heard among any gathering of black activists and civil rights leaders working tirelessly toward the cause of equality in America. It also became the rallying cry that helped bring more than 250,000 people to the U.S. capital in one of the country’s landmark demonstrations, the March On Washington.

Fifty years later, by most quantifiable measurements, Black America is still not free. Although they make up only 13 percent of the population, African-Americans make up 38 percent of the United States' prison population. Almost 30 percent of blacks live in poverty, and 18 percent under 65-years-old lack health insurance coverage. At 13.7 percent, blacks bear a disproportionate share of the unemployment burden, and with only 13 percent pursuing higher education, they make up a small sect of the country’s educated elite.

Faced with numbers like this, can Black America truly be considered free in 2013? It depends on whom you ask.

Brian Shields, a 29-year-old black entrepreneur who managed to rise above the challenges faced by so many African-American men, takes issue with being told he’s “still not free.”

“It’s a mental freedom,” he told The Huffington Post. “Do I see the chain? Yeah, I see people trying to put them on me all the time. But I’ve freed myself from them.”

Shields is just one example of the promise that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of. After graduating from the reverend’s alma mater, Morehouse College, he spent two years at Lehman Brothers working as an investment banking analyst, moving from a majority black campus environment to the old boys’ club of classic American capitalism. His shift to a private equity firm only reiterated to him that he was one of the few people of color in the finance world.

Driven by that lack of diversity and a deep desire to create intergenerational wealth, in November 2011 he co-founded IncubateNYC, a start-up firm designed to help entrepreneurs turn their ideas into sustainable, revenue-generating businesses.

But as Shields’ story shows, attaining success as a black American is often challenged by both the repetitious rhetoric of failure and the reality of racial disparity. King’s words from his posthumously published book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos Or Community?” ring as eerily true today as they did in 1968: “When we turn to the negative experiences of life, the Negro has a double share.”

This week, The Huffington Post has examined the state of Black America in a series called “Still Not Free,” looking at education, voting rights, crime, and other important policy areas relevant in the black community. What emerges is a common truth: While Black America has taken some important steps forward, its position in the country still lags behind where King and others dreamed it would have been five decades after they marched on the nation's capital.

If statistics alone tell the story of African-Americans in 2013 there would be nothing to see beyond a stagnant job market, a widening health gap, disproportionately high violent crime and incarceration rates, the denial of voting rights, and a lack of access to adequate education. It’s a bleak picture of an America where it seems more doors are being closed than opened.

But the weight of that hindrance is a heavy burden to bear, and one that many young blacks like Shields are taking off their shoulders. Instead, they’re taking advantage of opportunities they were once denied, often using technology to create a new form of activism that builds off of the triumphs of the civil rights movement and carries the torch forward as the community and country continue its journey toward a more perfect union.

'It Takes Both Hands'

In 1955, it took the murder and kidnapping of a young black teenager to stir the country out of its apathy. Emmett Till's death, and the subsequent acquittal of his killers, hardened the resolve of individuals and organizations who'd been fighting for a more equal America for decades.

“I picked up a Jet Magazine in 1955, and there was this grotesque brutalized head, Emmett Till. When I saw that … I said to myself when I grow up, I’m going to make sure that I fight against anything that’s done to treat people wrong because they’re different,” Amos Brown, pastor of First Baptist Church in San Francisco told The Huffington Post. After seeing that image, he held numerous sit-ins with civil rights activist Medgar Evers and eventually became Youth Coordinator for the NAACP.

In the post-Emmett Till 1950s, organizations like that one, the Congress On Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the National Urban League and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) worked to build a coalition of support and activism. That activism led to the landmark demonstration in Washington that came to epitomize the fierce urgency of the civil rights movement and helped bring about one of the most transformative decades in American history, in which both the Voting Rights Act of 1964, and the Civil Rights Act of 1965 were signed into law.

Fifty years later, America finds itself in a similarly tense moment on race relations. As the U.S. Supreme Court stripped down parts of the Voting Rights Act, and as states pushed for voter ID laws reminiscent of those enacted during Reconstruction, the shooting of an unarmed black teen and the acquittal of his admitted killer once again inspired thousands of citizens to gather in largely peaceful, coordinated, mass protests across the nation.

Although seemingly similar to the political fervor that followed Till’s killing, today’s response to the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin has one thing early civil rights leaders lacked: the Internet. Technology has driven a new form of engagement, galvanizing the activist spirit of the past, quickly spreading information, and in many cases, affecting meaningful change.

As the nation’s largest online civil rights organization, has used email, and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to encourage action in response to a number of recent, important civil rights battles. From championing for six young men of color accused of felonious assault after a racially charged altercation by starting an online petition asking the lieutenant governor of Louisiana to halt their prosecution, to petitioning Fox News to fire controversial conservative host Glenn Beck, Color of Change fights battles both big and small.

One of its most important campaigns recently, according to the organization’s executive director, Rashad Robinson, has been to persuade 52 corporations and public service organizations to leave the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC, a not-for-profit organization composed of legislators, foundations and businesses, puts together model policies aimed at promoting limited government intervention and free markets.

“ALEC is the organization behind both discriminatory voter ID laws and ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws. We’ve led a campaign taking on corporations ranging from Walmart to McDonald’s, to Kraft, to Pepsi to Coke ... telling them that they couldn’t come for black folks’ money by day and try to take away our vote, or make us unsafe by night,” Robinson told The Huffington Post.

Being “quick and nimble,” pivoting off of moments that capture the national spotlight, and using that energy to address the policy that causes them is the formula to the organization’s success, Robinson said.

“Right now, as people all around the country are looking at what they can do, are outraged around what happened in Sanford [Fla.] with this [Zimmerman] verdict, we’re pivoting to ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws with this idea that, from a long-term perspective, we want to push for something systemic, not just for Trayvon and his family, but for all the Trayvons we don’t know.”

Similarly, the NAACP used the Internet to encourage federal action after Zimmerman’s acquittal. The organization’s petition urging the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate whether or not Martin’s civil rights were violated garnered over 1 million signatures, a testament to the strength of technological activism.

“The Internet has both helped and challenged that education,” NAACP Sr. Vice President of Policy and Advocacy Hilary Shelton told The Huffington Post. “Social media has now made it a lot more cost effective and affordable for us to share information with people.”

Twitter, the micro-sharing social media site with over 200 million monthly users, has become a major medium for change, particularly for people of color. “Black Twitter,” the adopted name used to describe both African-Americans’ over-indexing use of the social network and the distinctly different ways the community interacts on the site, has proven to be a particularly effective avenue of protest.

Most recently, a furor erupted on the site after news broke that one of the six women whose not-guilty vote set Zimmerman free, referred to only as Juror B37, was exploring a potential book deal based on her participation in the case. Within hours, users found the username of the literary agent planning to represent the juror, started a petition, and managed to have the offer of representation rescinded.

This is just one of many examples of Black Twitter's victories. Rappers Lil Wayne and Rick Ross lost lucrative endorsements after protests on the network began in response to their controversial lyrics. Paula Deen, the well-known Food Network chef was fired after reports of racist comments began making their way around the internet--fueled in large part by the trending topic “Paula’s Best Dishes.”

But Dr. Amos Brown cautions against relying too heavily on protests based solely behind the keyboard. Instead he encourages a partnership between those who have the experience of organizing the mass demonstrations of the past and those who are digitally savvy enough to lead the modern-day movements of the future.

“We must keep in mind that there’s a digital divide in Black America,” he said. “It’s not either or, it takes both hands.”

'The Promised Land’

In 2008, the United States elected Barack Obama as its 44th president, representing for so many the shattering of the glass ceiling of racism that had impeded the progress of Black America since the first slaves had been brought to the country’s shores. A black man ascending to the nation’s highest office was indicative of the shifting impact of race on the American experiment. Obama—and by extension, Black America—had reached the mountaintop.

But two years into his historical first term, partisan gridlock set in, halting the progress of the black agenda.

“In 2010, we stopped paying attention,” Shelton told The Huffington Post. “We did what we thought we were supposed to do, as African-Americans, we elected an African-American president that reflected our values. But our agenda stopped being pushed.”

Three years later, the verdict in the Zimmerman trial has provided an important moment of reflection for the nation. Where, exactly, is Black America? How far has America itself really come? The answer, of course, defies an easy answer.

On one end of the spectrum, there are the Obamas and the Brian Shields -- African-Americans living out the legacy of Martin Luther King. On the other end, there are the Trayvon Martins and Emmett Tills -- blacks whose lives and untimely deaths highlight the centuries-old fight for equality in America and remind us that the battle has not yet been won.

“The most unfortunate thing about the verdict was it reminded me to think twice about the things I do,” Shields said. “So if I walk into a boardroom and pitch something, it gave me a second thought of ‘how are they gonna see me?’ ‘Who’s gonna see themselves in me?’”

‘I May Not Get There With You’

Although quantifying Black America’s success is a natural compulsion upon reaching such a milestone anniversary as 50 years since the March On Washington, it must also be placed in context, Shelton urged. Many of the demonstrations of the 50s and 60s were about establishing ways to implement and enforce laws that had passed decades prior, like the 15th amendment.

“Don’t forget the Voting Rights Act of ‘64 actually just codified the equal protections laws of the constitution,” Shelton said. “What was missing was infrastructure providing some enforcement and oversight to see to its implementation. I think that we keep learning what we actually need.”

If the Zimmerman verdict forced the nation to reflect, it simultaneously served as a bitter reminder that the journey toward equality is more of a marathon than a short race, advice King offered in his Mountaintop speech in 1968. Standing on the shoulders of generations past and using their wisdom, knowledge and experience to push forward, celebrating the summits of individual success while acknowledging the struggling masses, Black America in 2013 is staring down at a perpetually distant promised land, and still climbing.