The public commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington is done. The multitudes have returned home and the participants on the dais have put their oratory in the chronicle of history. Our attention turns now to next steps and our expectation, our hope that Saturday’s march is not defined by a period (.) but by a comma (,) because there is so much more work to do to eliminate racism and create a just America.
In 1963 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sent a stern warning to the nation’s leadership from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The civil rights icon advised, “Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.” As was the case then, and should be the understanding now, we cannot continue to accept “business as usual” as the modus operandi for America. Business as usual gave us Ronald Reagan, Clarence Thomas and a reactionary U.S. Supreme Court, the peeling back of affirmative action, the takeover of the airwaves by right-wing media and the diminishment of legal protections against workplace discrimination and police violence. The words of Dr. King were prophetic on August 28, 1963 as in fairly quick succession America’s cities went up in flames as Black discontent boiled over in Watts, Detroit, Newark and other urban centers.
We are still searching for meaning in the march held Saturday and must confess to being somewhat dismayed by the focus, or lack thereof, of the 50th anniversary event. We heard many messages but little by way of collective vision. It was a missed opportunity to frame a message that spoke with clarity to an agenda for social and economic justice. We appreciate that so many varied voices were heard but what we did not hear was the disciplined articulation of the path toward justice. It would have been meaningful to hear more fully the Rev. William Barber of the North Carolina NAACP who is shepherding an amazing and bourgeoning movement – Moral Mondays – against the rightward push of a once moderate southern state. The same can be said of Florida’s “Dream Defenders” or the efforts of parents and community advocates in Chicago and Newark to address gun violence. At least then we would have come away with some real examples of activism and a framework by which those in attendance could contemplate their engagement back home.
It is time for the African-American community, and our leadership, to take serious the legacy of abolitionists and civil rights pioneers. We have wasted away decades by trivial pursuits and getting distracted from the task at hand – transforming our nation to the beacon of hope its founding documents profess it to be. It is time to get serious because we are running out of time. In case you haven’t noticed, our heels are on the ledge and we are close, so very close, to falling into the precipice of irrelevance. At this point, it won’t take a shove but just a slight bump to send us over.
So as not to contribute to the confusion of the moment, we would like to encourage 10 steps you can take to bring about substantive change so we won’t have a need for a March on Washington 50 years from now.
1. Use your Dollars Wisely: According to a 2011 Nielsen study, African-American spending power is equivalent to the 16th largest nation. Yet, we spend foolishly when our dollars can be used strategically to empower our community. Just because a product is advertised doesn’t mean you have to buy it.
2. Support Black Business and Black Colleges: Imagine how far we could go if we simply supported Black businesses and historically Black colleges and universities. We have created a negative narrative about both institutions but it is our responsibility to support their growth and demand their excellence. Even if you are not an HBCU alumnus or have a child in attendance at a Black college, they are worth your investment given the tremendous role they continue to play in educating our youth.
3. Join the NAACP and/or the National Urban League: Both of these organizations are still relevant and have a national infrastructure unparalleled by other groups. Just take a look at the role the North Carolina NAACP is playing in confronting injustices in that state and you will begin to understand why that organization and the National Urban League continue to be important to the goal of full citizenship.
4. Support the Black Press: Long before “mainstream” media was taking our money, papers such as The Chicago Defender, Amsterdam News, Baltimore Afro-American, Philadelphia Tribune and Pittsburgh Courier were keeping the Black community informed and giving us a Black perspective on national and world events. We encourage our community to return to the Black press, and new electronic media like NorthStarNews.com, and make a financial commitment to independent, Black-owned media.
5. Join your local PTA: If you are a parent or guardian of a school age child, this is a no-brainer. How can we expect our children to receive a quality education if we are missing-in-action from organizations that focus on the schools they attend? Join and then participate.
6. Attend your Local Government Meeting: Stop complaining about the “City Council” or “Mayor” and start attending the meetings of your community’s governing body. Our job is to hold elected officials accountable; they are public servants and their job is to serve the public. That means you. That means us. You can’t hold them accountable from a distance and despite the power of social media, there is nothing like being present. Sometimes those who have been bequeathed power need to be reminded of their responsibility by those who gave them the gift.
7. Organize your Street: We get lost trying to tackle the BIG picture when we haven’t secured the home front. Where possible, get your street organized. Make sure everyone is registered to vote, create an e-mail list, and make sure everyone know who their elected representative are on the local (town or city), state, and federal levels. Bring folks together monthly – there is strength in numbers – and make sure everyone knows their neighbors. If we organize block by block, the next priority is the neighborhood and ultimately the town and state.
8. Support Children and Teenagers: Dedicate one or two hours per week for some activity related to the academic, cultural or spiritual enrichment of Black youth in your community. We criticize our (our as in communal) children but so few of us actually take the time to engage young people. Yes, we are all busy and tired but make the time. We are the best antidote against gangs and prison if we simply took it upon ourselves to shepherd our children.
9. Vote: Do we even have to say this anymore?
10. Set an Example: Don’t just talk the talk, lead a life of commitment and work and let those around you, particularly young people, be inspired by the example you set.