Earl Ofari Hutchinson
When Martin Luther King, III announced that he and the Reverend Al Sharpton would try to redeem his father's dream by recapturing the energy and the spirit of the monumental 1963 March on Washington, it seemed like a tall order. The original march punctuated by King's towering "I Have a Dream" speech acted as a powerful wrecking ball that crumbled the walls of legal segregation and ushered in an era of unbridled opportunities for many blacks. The results are unmistakable today. Blacks are better educated, more prosperous, own more businesses, hold more positions in the professions, have more elected officials, and high ranking corporate officials, managers, executives than ever before. Yet the towering racial improvements that the 1963 March on Washington symbolized, mask the harsh reality that the times and challenges King faces are far different and in some ways far more daunting than what his father faced.
When King, Jr, marched in 1963 black leaders had already firmly staked out the moral high ground for a powerful and irresistible civil rights movement. It was classic good versus evil. Many white Americans were sickened by the gory news scenes of baton battering racist Southern sheriffs, firehoses, police dogs, and Klan violence unleashed against peaceful black protesters. Racial segregation was considered by just about anyone and everyone who fancied themselves as decent Americans as immoral and indefensible, and the civil rights leaders were hailed as martyrs and heroes in the fight for justice.
As America unraveled in the 1960s in the anarchy of urban riots, campus takeovers, and anti-war street battles, the civil rights movement and its leaders fell apart, too. Many of them fell victim to their own success and failure. When they broke down the racially restricted doors of corporations, government agencies, and universities, middle class blacks, not the poor, were the ones who rushed headlong through them. As King Jr, veered toward left radicalism and embraced the rhetoric of the militant anti-war movement, he became a political pariah shunned by the White House, as well as mainstream white and black leaders.
King's murder in 1968 was the turning point for race relations in America. The self-destruction from within and political sabotage from outside of black organizations left the black poor organizationally fragmented and politically rudderless. The black poor lacking competitive technical skills and professional training, and shunned by many middle-class black leaders, became expendable jail and street and cemetery fodder. Some turned to gangs, guns, and drugs to survive.
If MLK III is to redeem, or better yet reshape, his father's dream he will have to confront the crisis problems of family breakdown, the rash of shamefully failing public schools, racial profiling, urban police violence, the obscene racial disparities in the prison and criminal justice system, and the HIV/AIDS crisis. These are beguiling problems that sledgehammer the black poor and these are the problems that King's father did not have to deal with. King III will also have to confront something else that his father did not have to confront. King had the sympathy and goodwill of millions of whites, politicians, and business leaders in the peak years of the civil rights movement. MLK III does not have that. Instead he must confront the hostility and indifference of many whites to social programs, education, civil rights and civil liberties. He will have to deal with the reality that race matters in America can no longer be framed exclusively in black and white. Latinos and Asians have become major players in the fight for political and economic empowerment and figure big in the political strategies of Democratic and Republican presidential contenders Al Gore and George W. Bush. He will also have to figure out ways to balance the competing and contradictory needs of these and other ethnic groups and patch them into a workable coalition for change. He will have to confront the mistaken conviction of many black leaders that the only place that they can and should fight racial battles are in the courts, Congress, state houses, the universities, and corporate boardrooms.
It's grossly unfair to expect leaders such as MLK III to be the charismatic, aggressive champions of, and martyrs for, civil rights that his father was. Or to think that thirty seven years later another March on Washington can solve the seemingly intractable problems of the black poor. The times and circumstances have changed too much for that. The best that black leaders can do or hope to do is draw strength from King's courage, vision and dedication and fight the hardest they can against racial and economic injustice. That in itself would be a big and significant step toward redeeming, and reshaping, the dream.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of The Disappearance of Black Leadership. email:email@example.com
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