Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), of Black Power fame, when head of SNCC, observes in his autobiography that the March on Washington marked an important departure for the Civil Rights Movement. But not the one you might think, being celebrated this week -- Martin Luther King's Dream speech, the "respectability" of the Movement, its interracial character.
Instead, it was the culmination of a strategy by John and Robert Kennedy to divert the energy of the Civil Rights Movement away from direct action campaigns -- boycotts, sit-ins, Freedom Rides -- to voter registration, electoral politics and lobbying. The civil rights leadership moved further in this direction with "Mississippi Freedom Summer" in 1964, whose anniversary we will celebrate next year.
The earlier direct action strategies drew violent and public reactions from racist whites all over the South, handing the Kennedy Administration huge, international propaganda losses in the midst of the Cold War. How could they struggle with the Soviet Union for the hearts and minds of emerging Third World leaders with this kind of thing going on, so publicly, in their backyard?
By pushing voter registration to the civil rights leadership, and then funding and supporting it, the Kennedy brothers would not only handle their publicity problem, they would also create a stream of new Democratic voters for the upcoming presidential election.
Unfortunately, the mainstream political system into which civil rights was now integrating is based fundamentally on low levels of participation by citizens. This is how the Federalists meant it to work -- representative, not direct democracy, because they did not trust the people (Shay's rebellion really scared them).
But it's gotten much worse in our time, with so much of politics being carried on by television and email and with huge amounts of money. Generally, the ordinary citizen has no role beyond participating in elections. The really important business -- governance -- is left to professional politicians, their corporate donors, and some heavily organized and financed special interests.
Because of the shift the Civil Rights Movement took, its broad base of participating African Americans -- especially the young "shock troops" of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) -- were soon not needed. Lawyers, professionals, lobbyists, and elected officials began "representing" the African American community instead.
That brings us to today, where the anniversary celebration of the March on Washington brought people to the Mall who have very little connection with the process beyond voting and making small donations to political campaigns or as rank-and-file members of various lobbying organizations. On Saturday, a small group of the "elect" -- politicians, lobbyists, and big donors -- sat in VIP areas marked off from the general public. The AP reported that "metal barriers keep people away from the reflecting pool. Only a small group of attendees is allowed near the memorial. Everyone else has been pushed back and is watching and listening to the speeches on big-screen televisions." A perfect metaphor for the Civil Rights Movement -- and politics in general -- today.
There are many problems with this outcome, but I want focus on one in particular, and it has to do with Trayvon Martin. I blogged before that young black men in this country lack role models who are not thugs or suits. The problem with both these models is that neither one is really trying to fight against the racism and injustice that still sullies our country's reputation.
Another role model, the one presented by the young men who were the "shock troops" of the Movement, people like Stokely Carmichael, is no longer available. Stokely inspired a whole generation of us who saw that one way to be manly -- frankly, to poke your chest out -- was to fight racism and injustice directly. Young black men today have few such options.
So, I have a dream, and it's that SNCC reappears, or something very much like it. I see chapters in high schools and colleges all over the country (not just in the South), spontaneously organizing as the idea catches on, drawing in young people from all kinds of neighborhoods and all kinds of backgrounds. I have a dream that this will give black youth a chance to struggle against what is really bothering them -- racism, injustice, and denial of opportunity.
I dream of young black men (and women) sitting in at police stations where police brutality and racial profiling are rampant. I see them sitting in at prisons where too many black men have been forced into modern-day slavery in the name of a war on drugs. I see them sitting in at schools and school board meetings in districts where black children are denied a quality education.
I see them sitting in at the NRA for gun control, boycotting banks engaged in predatory lending, and shaming radio stations that broadcast the hate speech of right-wing talk show hosts. I see them sitting in at the offices of ALEC, that sponsors and promotes stand your ground and voter identification laws. I see them boycotting businesses that spite their communities and speaking out at "town hall" meetings of politicians who spend too much time with big donors and not enough with the people who elected them. I see them eventually joined by youth of all races and class backgrounds, who then engage their own communities on their own issues.
I see these sit-ins and demonstrations and boycotts and other "direct" actions as strategically and tactically focused, and of relatively short duration. (In both respects, unlike the recent Occupy activities) I also see them as student-run and organized, without allegiance to any existing leader's or organization's agenda.
I dream that in this way the agency and autonomy lost when the Civil Rights movement shifted from directly confronting racism and injustice can be recovered. I dream that this will occur not just by marching and demonstrating and sitting in, but by creating a civic infrastructure to hold business as well as government accountable. And, in the process, I dream that African American youth will find a new sense of purpose and engagement that can help them succeed in everything they do.