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From Martin Luther King to Barack Obama and beyond

cc. Questioning the validity of the linear from-Martin-Luther-King-to-Barack-Obama interpretation of the US civil rights movement featured within many mainstream channels, Alan Singer argues that the emphasis should in reality be on the role of mass participation in engendering progressive social change. In turbulent times of severe economic downturn, the author insists, it is up to individuals to provide the energy and momentum needed for climbing the mountains of social justice on the horizon.

My name is Alan Singer and I am here to recruit you. Many of you have either seen the movie Milk, about Harvey Milk, a gay activist in San Francisco, or the movie trailers, where he tells audiences he wants to recruit them. It is a powerful line from a powerful movie. At another point in the movie Harvey Milk says, ‘Without hope life is not worth living – you’ve got to give them hope.’ Not only am I here today to recruit you, but I am here to share with you my hope for the future.

It is fitting that I share it with you at this time – Martin Luther King’s Birthday and the African American Civil Rights Movement were celebrated on 15 January on Monday last week, and on Tuesday of this week, in a historic first, Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States, the first president who is not European-American. But while I respect these men and their achievements, my hope does not lie with Martin Luther King or Barack Obama. In fact I am sceptical about what President Obama will be able to achieve.

My hope for the future actually lies with you. Because of the election of Barack Obama, there will be a lot of talk in the next few days that the civil rights movement has finally been successfully completed. As an activist and a historian, I disagree.

The African-American civil rights movement in the United States was a major world historic event that motivated people to fight for social justice in this country and others. Its activism, ideology, and achievements contributed to the women’s rights movement, the gay and lesbian rights movement, the struggle for immigrant rights, and the anti-war movement in this country. It inspired anti-apartheid activists in South Africa and national liberation movements in Third World countries.

In many ways, I am a product of the civil rights movement. I did not march in 1963 – I was only thirteen years old – but I did march at the 20th anniversary celebration in Washington, DC, in 1983 and at many other protests demanding an end to imperialist war, equality for all citizens, immigrant rights, and social justice. The last time I marched was on Sunday when I joined a group of people at Times Square in New York demanding an end to the US supported Israeli attack on Gaza and the occupation of Palestinian lands in Gaza and the West Bank. The traditional myth about the civil rights movement, the one that is taught in schools and promoted by politicians and the national media, is that Rosa Parks sat down, Martin Luther King stood up, and somehow the whole world changed. The new myth, currently being refined, adds the legend of Barack Obama to the equation.

But the real story is that the civil rights movement was a mass democratic movement to expand human equality and guarantee citizenship rights for black Americans. While some individual activists stood out, it involved hundreds of thousands of people, including many white people, who could not abide the US history of racial oppression dating back to the days of slavery. It is worth noting that many of the whites involved in the civil rights movement were radicals – communists and socialists – who had been involved in earlier protest movements, particularly the building of the labour movement, and a disproportionate number were Jews who had their own experiences of racism and bigotry. King and Parks played crucial and symbolic roles in the civil rights movement, but so also did Thurgood Marshall, Myles Horton, Fanny Lou Hammer, Ella Baker, A. Philip Randolph, Walther Reuther, Medger Evers, John Lewis, Bayard Rustin, Pete Seeger, Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson, as well as activists who were critics of racial integration and non-violent civil disobedience such as Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers.

The stories of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King have been sanitised to rob them of their radicalism and power. Rosa Parks was not a little old lady who sat down in the white-only section of a bus because she was tired. She was a trained organiser, a graduate of the Highlander school where she studied civil disobedience and social movements, and a leader of the Montgomery, Alabama National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She made a conscious choice to break an unjust law in order to provoke a response and promote a movement for social change. And she wasn’t even that old when she was arrested. She was only 42 when she refused to change her seat and made history.

Martin Luther King, although you would never know it from next Monday’s commemoration, challenged the war in Vietnam, US imperialism, and laws that victimised working people and the poor, not just racial discrimination. When he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, he was helping organise a sanitation workers union. If Dr King had not been assassinated, but had lived to become an old radical activist constantly questioning American policy, I suspect he would never have become so venerated. It is better for a country to have heroes who are dead, because they cannot make embarrassing statements opposing continuing injustice and unnecessary wars.

The African-American civil rights movement is over. It ran its course and it had impressive achievements. It started in the 1940s when A. Philip Randolph and others challenged segregation in the military and in war-related industries. It picked up steam in the 1950s with the Brown vs Topeka, Kansas Board of Education decision and the Montgomery bus boycott. It peaked with the 1963 march on Washington and the Selma to Montgomery march that led to the 1965 voting rights act. The civil rights movement ended legal segregation in the United States and as I noted before, led to a generation of activism in many different areas. But it was a coalition of people with disparate goals and it gradually came apart after 1965. Many of its white allies felt the movement’s goals had been achieved with the Brown decision and passage of anti-discrimination laws and voting protection. Many blacks, including Reverend Martin Luther King, were disappointed with the limited impact of legal change. They felt that changes in the law were only a beginning and that these had to be followed with programmes to promote economic and social equality. In many urban centres, disappointment turned into rage and rage into rioting, further alienating whites who wanted blacks to be satisfied with incremental change and limited gains.

While social inequality certainly continues, the African-American civil rights movement ended, probably with the assassination of Dr King in April 1968 and the abandonment of ‘Great Society’ social programmes by the Democratic Party. What kind of country is it when young black men are more likely to be incarcerated than in college, when inner city youth unemployment at the best of times hovers about 50 per cent, and children who already have internet access at home are the ones most likely to have it in school?

I believe the United States needs a new social movement, a movement for social justice, and that is the movement I am recruiting you to join. I am not recruiting you to a particular ideology, political programme, or point of view. The world is constantly changing – you are constantly changing – and it would be foolish to pigeonhole you at the age of 12 or even 16 and demand that you support a particular cause for the rest of your lives. What I am recruiting you for is to make a commitment to three ways of looking at the world. I want you to be critical thinkers, to reject received truths, and to demand the right to evaluate evidence and underlying ideas. I am recruiting you to become thinking human beings.

I am also recruiting you to become compassionate human beings with respect for diversity. You need to be concerned with the needs of others who share this planet with us, to recognise their humanity, and to understand that they want the same things for themselves and their families that you do, things like adequate food and housing, decent education and medical care, and hope for the future. You also need to understand that just because someone does not live your way, practice your religion, or make the same choices that you make, it does not mean they are wrong or of any less value than you.

And finally, I am recruiting you to a life of civic activism, as full participants in shaping the future of a democratic society that supposedly values an interchange of ideas and an open expression of disagreement.

At the 2004 Republican national convention in New York, I was marching with a group of teachers in protest against the war in Iraq. After we had been standing in one place for a while, a young social studies teacher asked me how long we had been marching. I thought for a few seconds and responded ‘forty years’. She laughed and said, ‘I mean really’. ‘Forty years,’ I said, ‘I’ve been marching for forty years’. I invite you all to march with me. It is time for a new social movement in the United States, a movement for social justice that ensures political, social, and economic rights for all people, citizens and non-citizens, Americans and everybody else, and I am here to recruit you.

A big issue today in this region of the country is the rights of undocumented immigrants who live among us and play a crucial role in the workforce. Will you turn your backs on them, or will you advocate and organise to defend them? Each of you will have to make a decision. With the country and the global economy locked in a severe economic downturn that might turn into a Great Depression on the magnitude of the 1930s, the nation and the world have listened carefully to Obama’s inaugural address. Based on the past, we know that when difficulties such as this recession occur, working and poor people, youth and the elderly, racial and ethnic minorities, and especially children, the people with the least, will be asked to bear the heaviest burdens.

President Obama can choose to be a leader in the movement for social justice. He can choose to participate. But we have no guarantees. In fact, the only one you can really control is yourself. During the 1930s workers organizing labour unions sang: ‘You got to go down and join the union, you got to join it for yourself, nobody here can join it for you, you got to go down and join the union for yourself.’ You have to decide to be an activist for social justice committed to full participation in decision-making in a democratic society for yourself.

In his last speech, Reverend Martin Luther King told his audience: ‘We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop… I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!’ Martin Luther King did not tell what the promised land would look like, but as a lifetime social activist I am sure that he knew.

Some of you may remember the silly children’s song about the bear who went over the mountain to see what he could see. On the other side, he saw another mountain. Each time the bear climbed the mountain, he found another mountain that had to be climbed. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement climbed their mountain. It is time for you to start climbing yours.

* Alan Singer a professor of secondary education and the director of social studies education at the Hofstra University School of Education and Allied Human Services. Singer is the author of New York and Slavery, Time to Teach the Truth
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