Back to the Future: Moving the Movement Forward

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    The 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington is an important event not only because it recalls a landmark era in American history – the years when the United States became a democracy in fact not just rhetoric. It also reminds us of three interrelated forces that have always defined the Black freedom struggle.

    The nature of the first of those dynamics is best captured by that well-known phrase: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

    The second comes from remarks A. Philip Randolph, the patriarch of the mid-20th century Civil Rights Movement, made in early 1965 at one of the many low points the civil rights forces endured on the way to their ultimate legislative victories. It can be found in the excellent new history of the 1963 March by William P. Johnson, The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights.

    Randolph said: “The Civil Rights Revolution has been caught up in a crisis of victory; a crisis which may involve great opportunity or great danger to its future fulfillment.”

    The third dynamic I take from the title of a popular 1980s film comedy: Back to the Future.

    Taken together, these three forces lead to one simple fact. The Black freedom struggle never ends. Indeed, upon reaching a landmark moment, those fighting for equality and justice barely get any breathing room before the necessity of plunging back into the struggle becomes apparent.

    That’s because every significant advance toward full citizenship Blacks have forged from the Civil War to the present has provoked a “massive resistance” reaction from White Americans intended to maintain the old White-supremacist rules. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    So it was with Blacks’ emancipation from slavery. So it was with the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v Board of Education school desegregation decision in 1954.

    So, it has been with President Obama’s election and re-election. The virulently racist reaction to that landmark event by a minority of Whites, aided and abetted by the Republican Party, has produced the same dynamic of a “crisis of victory” that A. Philip Randolph identified a half-century ago.

    The most recent survey of racial attitudes of Black, white and Hispanic Americans by the Pew Research Center, released August 22, has charted the disillusionment many Black Americans now feel about the state of racial progress. The survey shows Blacks’ clear belief that their progress has stagnated across a variety of fronts – employment, income, wealth accumulation, quality of public schooling, police-community relations, and so on.

    In one sense, the hard facts which show that stagnation – a lack of progress caused or intensified by the Great Recession that in some cases puts Blacks at the same place they were in the 1960s – is reason enough for disillusionment.

    But Pew’s surveys of 2009 and 2010 showed that, even as the recession was ravaging Blacks’ economic standing, they were markedly optimistic about the immediate future.

    So, it’s rather surprising that Pew did not, as it states, explore “other evidence as to what caused the downward shift in opinions about Black progress.” The document goes on to say that “However, the fading glow of Obama’s first term and the lingering effects of the recession are likely to have been important factors.”

    And one could add – don’t you think? – the dismal, continual evidence of the White minority’s “massive resistance” to Black advancement.

    After all, Black Americans have endured five years and counting of what I call the “Obama Derangement Syndrome.” During that time hardly a day has passed without another news story about yet another Republican Party official at the local, state or national level spouting some outlandish, if not overtly racist remark about the President and/or his family.

    More concretely, in those five years we’ve seen Republican Party legislators in state after state use thoroughly-discredited claims of voter fraud to pass laws intended to deny Blacks (and other Democratic-leaning voting groups) the right to vote – actions affirmed, in effect, by June’s Supreme Court decision striking down the most important provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

    For all the progress that’s been made in the last half-century, and for all the good the formation of the multi-racial coalition that’s twice elected President Obama has done, the racist “massive resistance” to his presidency has shown Blacks just how much remains to be done on the frontlines of the freedom struggle.

    That’s one of the many reasons we should consider the current discussions about the 1963 March on Washington a “Back to the Future” moment. The story of what happened before that day, and on that day, and after that day make the point that disillusionment isn’t an option. There is work to do.

    Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.

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