Dr. King speaking against the Vietnam War at Riverside Church in New York City in 1967
“Freedom is not won by a passive acceptance of suffering. Freedom is won by a struggle against suffering.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The current presidential election seems to have triggered a panic in Black people that we have not observed in decades and has induced amnesia among those who are old enough to have participated in or witnessed the civil rights movement. Perhaps the specter of a Donald Trump presidency is so frightening to many that they cannot take a step back and critically assess the totality of Black subjugation without inflamed partisan passion. The warnings abound – you have to vote for Hillary and any vote not for the Democratic candidate is a vote for Trump. The narrative of the civil rights movement is being used to infer that the struggle for Black voting rights is synonymous with voting for the Democratic candidate or any purportedly progressive candidate for that matter. It is not. Just as the act of voting should not be confused with the right to vote. That right is one of personal determination that is left to the discretion of the individual bearer. Lives were not lost for the compulsory exercise of the franchise but for the right of free will to engage democratic institutions as free citizens.
In several weeks we will commemorate the historic March on Washington, held on a sweltering August day in the nation’s capital in 1963. Voting rights has now become embedded in our national memory as the context for that march but the disfranchisement of Blacks only tells part of the story of that great gathering. The call-to-action centered around the theme of “Jobs and Freedom” and labor leader A. Philip Randolph, the principal architect of the March on Washington had advocated such a call for justice for decades. It is why labor played such a prominent role in the march and union men such as Walter Reuther of the United Automobile Workers and lawyer Joseph Rauh were present and accounted for as supporters of the historic demonstration. A close listen to Dr. King’s speech and it is peppered with references to the total manner in which Blacks have been marginalized by white supremacy, and not simply from the impact of Jim Crow on voting rights. While the assassination of Medgar Evers was fresh in the minds of those in attendance, the March on Washington had an economic and systems change focus that is rarely acknowledged today. Voting was then, and should be now, seen as one tool available to sway the institutions of our nation toward justice.
What we should also remember is that Black leadership of that day staged that march while a sitting president who was deemed reasonable, a Democrat, sat in the office. Though there were internal debates as to the efficacy of a march, in the final analysis Black leadership felt that circumstances outweighed political expediency or fear of offending supposed allies. Our political lens today has been clouded by partisan affiliation and symbolic victories that have resulted in the loss of the type of self-interested independence that we once embraced, if just for a moment. Yes, the very next year Black Mississippians were fighting to be seated at the Democratic National Convention but they brought to Atlantic City in 1964 a defiance and determination that was born from their willingness to challenge institutional racism within the party.
In the mid-1960s there was an endgame that qualified our decision to cast our lot with one party, despite our historical relationships. Today, we seem fulfilled by association; by the proximity to power and the imagery of equal standing. The audacity and courage of 1963 has given way to a complacency and acquiescence in 2016. We deem victory as total allegiance to a political candidate without defining our expectations of that individual. The irony is that in the greatest period (1963-1965) of national recognition of Black grievances since Reconstruction there was no Congressional Black Caucus and not a single Black mayor of a major American city. In other words, Black determination and courage, separate and apart from the party of the occupant of the Oval Office elevated our agenda. Since those civil rights victories of the 1960s we have conflated partisanship with our struggle for freedom. It is why Dr. King pretty much stood alone among Black leadership in his opposition to the Vietnam War and his call to attend to the needs of America’s poor while a Democrat was president. It became more important to demonstrate party loyalty than to bind our struggle to conscience.
We now embrace the operative symbol of the civil rights struggle – the vote – but fail to accept full responsibility for the underlying principles that fueled the movement. It is why once formed, the Congressional Black Caucus adopted the mantra “No permanent friends. No permanent enemies. Just permanent interests.” We now have permanent friends, identify permanent enemies and speak about our interests in partisan terms that have little meaning to the masses of Blacks who are living at the margins.
We cannot allow fear to dictate our electoral behavior. In practical terms what does that mean with the likes of a Donald Trump on the ballot? I’m not suggesting you vote for Trump but neither am I encouraging the total submission of our votes to Hillary Clinton. No other electoral bloc in our nation is poised to give such an unqualified advantage to a candidate. There are states in which Black votes will be key for the Democratic candidate, while in other states those votes will not move the needle as they will be Trump strongholds. In swing states, Black votes will matter. However, in states where Black votes will not bear upon the electoral outcome, those voters could vote for a third-party candidate. That is an idea put forth by Professor Eddie Glaude, chairman of the Center for African-American Studies at Princeton University, and a strategy I support. It would help elevate the idea of a multi-party system, facilitate a third party’s participation in presidential debates in 2020, and send a message that Black votes are malleable.
If we can return to the spirit of the civil rights movement, and recapture the independence of Black political power and the responsibility of our engagement, we stand a good chance of again achieving some transformative victories that will move us closer to the vision articulated in 1963.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.