Renewing the Struggle for Civil Rights

The planet is speaking and too few are listening. The poor are weeping and too few are concerned. The despised and rejected of men are incarcerated and deported. The Guantanamo gulag still exists. Drone warfare continues unabated. The economic devastation caused by the uber-rich is paid for by the struggling poor.

Rev. Brian Woodson, an Oakland pastor, speaks at a “We Are One” rally organized by the Alameda Labor Council at Oakland City Hall. Photo: Brook Anderson

by Brian K. Woodson, Sr.

The fight for civil rights in the middle of the 20th century was not an American invention, nor was it the preoccupation of domestic leaders alone. It was a worldwide phenomenon with an American manifestation.

Even in the United States, it was multidimensional, with layers of language, experience and expressions too vast and complex to unravel with any depth in the precious few sentences of this article.  Even with all the books that have been written and the records that have been revealed, we must be wise enough to know that there is still so much that we do not know.

Billie Holiday’s  famous mournful anthem, “Strange Fruit,” reminded us that “Southern trees bear strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root…” And the countless martyrs whose stories will never be told are also integral parts of the movement for freedom that history records as the Civil Rights movement.

There are many tributaries and streams to the river that became mighty enough to change the face of American society. If there were only one lesson to be garnered from the experience it would be that the oppressed, beleaguered and subjugated will only be delivered from the abuses of injustice when they themselves rise up to fight for justice.

Now, it is true that change is inevitable and constant, but progressive, positive change that effectively confronts injustice and inequities is no simple or evolutionary thing. It requires courage, tenacity, wisdom, luck and a whole lot of other factors introduced by the Divine at the precise time and right moment. There are no guarantees of success that can be bought, sold, reasoned or otherwise procured.

Those who would challenge injustice and fight for moral progress in an immoral context do so at their own peril. Still, history suggests that there is no other option for actual human sociological advancement. And so let us engage to continue the process of progress.

I don’t know if there is a place where “we the people” can go to have unmonitored, unauthorized conversations about the state. I am not sure that there is a place that the dissidents can gather to dispute, disagree and discuss. But I do know that the creation of such a place is vital if we are to survive.

I  do believe with all my heart that the paradigm of extant power must change in progressive and sustainable directions if there is any hope for human survival on this blue marble sailing through the universe. And if that conversation is to be engaged, there is no better place than here and no better time then now.

Vilified in life, idolized in death

Now, considering the struggle for Civil Rights in America, perhaps the first person that comes to mind is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King is the icon of the American Civil Rights movement for many reasons. Some of them you may find just and others unjust. I believe he stands as the icon of American Civil Rights largely because he no longer can speak his mind or move his body. It is entirely but not exclusively an American phenomenon to idealize, then idolize in death, the one you vilified in life.

The Kingian principles, ethos and praxis are essential if we are to progress in society. If we are to critique empire and engage in the building up of a beloved community, more and more of us must embrace and understand the movement over which King stands iconically.

My thoughts are not intended to diminish King at all but to contextualize him. For there is a danger of messianic hope if the only solution as seen in the kinds of misguided hopes placed on the Obama election, followed by a largely uncritical view of his presidency.

For this reason, it is important to understand that King was not alone in building the Civil Rights movement, and more importantly, it is vital to suggest what a comparable movement would look like in the present. For we must bring the Kingian principles from the shadowed, dusty past to the relevant present.

The hammer of hatred and inhumanity is as real today as it was in the mid-20th century. If there is to be any hope, it is in the Fannie Lou Hamers, Bayard Rustins, Clay Evans, JoElla Stevensons — and all those who gave their life energy to changing this nation, but will never be honored with a statue or a book. Those whose names will forever remain uncelebrated but without which you and I would be lynched or enslaved for the thoughts we share and the lives we live.

McDonald’s and MLK

The teenagers and children who are growing up today are being presented with a view of the Civil Rights movement distorted by the MLK of McDonald commercials. They must come to understand that there is more to what happened than they are being shown. The uncritical young adults who accept the government and corporations recording and inspecting their every thought, purchase and movement, must open their eyes to see the full extent of oppression and injustice.

The poor and working class, the homeless and near-homeless citizens of these United States are in dire straits and desperate need of a movement similar to the one whose symbol is Martin Luther King Jr. But no such movement will occur if our time is consumed looking for a Martin instead of working for a movement.

America has a penchant to forget and then manufacture history in ways that suit myths of her righteousness. But please understand that the Rev. Dr. Martin King modern American mythmakers wish us to see is not the Rev. King American mythmakers saw at the time.

Today they wish us to see someone whose hopes and dreams would have been realized in the election of the first president with African blood. They wish us to see a Dr. King who would be elated to see our integrated schools and buses. A Rev. King who would rejoice at the interracial marriages and black pro quarterbacks and television superstars. That is the Martin they wish you to see towering over the mall in our nation’s capital.

They want you to believe that the “I Have A Dream” speech epitomized these values and ranks with the greatest oratory of our nation. That is the Martin the American image-makers want you to see and believe they saw. But it wasn’t.

The Hatred of Hoover

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover hated the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Historians say that Hoover was obsessed with him. Hoover thought Martin was the most dangerous man in America. He accused King of being a communist and had him followed and wiretapped and who knows what else. The FBI devoted more of its resources to the surveillance, disruption, persecution and destruction of Martin King than it did to anything or anyone else.

Neither the Kennedy nor Johnson administration liked Dr. King. But both opened the White House doors because Dr. King and the movement left them no other tenable option. The American brand of democracy was on trial and the whole world was watching.

The cruel and unjust antipathy which blacks suffered every day could no longer be hidden and ignored. America’s windows were wide open and the world was watching as Bull Connor’s dogs bit innocent children and church leaders in Birmingham, and as Alabama Gov. George Wallace vowed “segregation forever,” and a thousand other examples of American evil were being exposed.

The King America wants us to see now wasn’t the King they saw then. Further, Martin wasn’t loved and accepted by all blacks, and all except a few Americans of European descent rejected him. Many African Americans as well as white leaders in the Christian church shunned association with Dr. King and declared his ethos, tactics and theology inappropriate, unwarranted and wrong.

But King was not alone. It must be understood when one looks to the past that the very world at the time was in motion. Africa, in particular, was alive with the energy and action that threw off the colonial subjugation of European powers.

The world itself was undergoing drastic change in that era. Global contests questioning the validity of power and political construct were alive and engaged all over the planet. Colonialism, with all its abuses, racism and violence, was being challenged worldwide. The melanin-kissed people of Africa led the world in throwing off the shackles of European domination. The British, French and Belgian powers strained and were capitulating.

Democracy was on trial and its counter, Communism, sat at the prosecutor’s desk calling witness after witness to the bar of world opinion.

Martin was not alone

Martin was not alone. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which he led, and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee were not the only voices in the struggle.

The streets of America were alive with critique and Martin Luther King Jr. was not the only voice of dissent. James R. Lawson of the United African Nationalist Movement, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, and Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X of the Nation of Islam were very popular voices in the struggle for alternatives to the violent racist oppression in America.

Everyone knows of segregation’s water fountains, lunch counters and bus stations, but what fueled the rebellion was not so frivolous as these vanities would suggest. The whole of the American ethos, history and praxis was exposed and threatened.

The continued rape of our women, subjugation of our humanity, mis-education of our progeny, theft of our labor and false fabrication of our history were on trail. America had been weighed in the balance and been found wanting.

Meanwhile, white racists continued to beat, bomb and batter Blacks at whim and will. White supremacists lied, libeled and lynched us and Blacks were rising up in defense of their lives and deference to their own people.

The FBI devoted more of its resources to the surveillance, disruption, persecution and destruction of Martin King than it did to anything or anyone else. Neither the Kennedy nor Johnson administration liked Dr. King.

 

Martin was not alone and the American political system was not on trial alone. Christianity was also on trial. It was seen as the White man’s religion. It was labeled a slave religion. Christian clergy were seen more as part of the problem than part of the solution.

And into this cauldron of chaos and change Martin was thrown. We know of the speeches of Dr. King. We can hear his voice online, in the media and in our minds, but there were other voices. They were loud and vociferous at the time. Like the voice of John Davis preaching Black Nationalism in Harlem on the corner of 125th Street and 7th Avenue in front of the Teresa Hotel, or the voice of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad declaring that the white man was the devil personified and that by 1970 the war against the devil will have been waged and won.

There were other voices as well, some of which were chronicled by Mike Wallace and Louis Lomax in their television production entitled “The Hate That Hate Produced.”

The option offered to the love and peace that Martin King espoused was retributive hatred and violence. Still, the options with which change would most quickly and surely come must never be exchanged with the common change that was sought; namely human dignity, opportunity and respect for the poor and working women and men of America and the world.

The reality of the Civil Rights Movement is now a chapter in American history. The statue of Martin King stands peering over the Washington Mall as a suggestion that we believe that America has changed and now accepts him. But it must also stand to remind us not of whom we are told to believe he was, but to remember that the work he was a part of remains woefully unfinished.

I would like to suggest that, at the moment, it is too quiet on the American Front. The lens of history is of little use if it is not used to focus and interpret the present. And it is only right readings of the present that future histories will recognize as valid. It falls to us to address the question of our age and engage the struggle of our time.

Obama was never a King

And although I believe that Barack Obama is an American avatar, I do not look to him — nor should you — for the solutions to the deep problems within or without our country and experience. Now, five years into his administration, the truth of American intransigence is plain to see and open for inspection. Obama was never a Martin King, except in the sense that mythmakers wish us to see him as such.

Under his presidency, much of the excesses and abominations of the Bush administrations prevail. He has deported millions and millions of people, thereby destroying families and increasing the fragility of our social construct. The Guantanamo gulag still exists. Drone warfare, emblematic of American imperialism, continues unabated. The economic devastation caused by the uber-rich and paid for by the struggling poor has morphed into more riches for the already rich and a proliferation of poverty in America and all over the planet.

Perhaps Barack Obama would be as good a president as he seems a man were it not for the incessant attacks and demonization he suffers at the hands of a ubiquitous and militant right-wing media. Still, his policies, if given half a chance, would only be moderate modifications to the American Imperial mess. And this we will never know, because anything he says or suggests is met with the most virulent torrent of disguised hatred.

Ever since Ronald Reagan fired the Air Traffic Controllers soon after his fabricated election… (Let me take a sidebar at this point. I hope you do not believe that the fabrication of elections began with the 2000 coup d’etat when the Bushes stole Florida from the Floridians and Ohio from the Buckeyes. I hope you understand that to this very minute there is no verifiable means of certifying an election in the United States. We can electronically bank with security and confidence, but there is neither security nor reliability in the American voting process. Democracy cannot exist without free and fair elections, yet there is little reason to have confidence in the electoral process. To have free and fair elections would result in the majority ruling and elevate the voice of the poor to audibility — and America has always preferred otherwise.)

Since Ronald Reagan fired the Air Traffic Controllers soon after his fabricated election, a war on the civil rights gains has been waged and largely won. The reach of the NSA, CIA, FBI and their corporate clients into our lives, thoughts, computers and phone conversations would make J. Edgar Hoover blush.

The incarceration rates and the evolution of the prison-industrial complex have replaced conversations about classroom diversity and equity with the urgent need to combat a school-to-prison pipeline.

Carter G. Woodson stated that; “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions.” And should we examine the actions of our youth, young adults or even our own actions, we would blush at the utter lack of critical historical reflection alive today. We are lost in a sea of individualism, adrift in an ocean of information, clutching the broken boards from the ship of our humanity. We are drowning in the putrid waters of personal identity and individualized worldviews.

Our common humanity

If Noah saved the world two by two, we are destroying it one by one with the preoccupation of our personal identity and desires. What this America needs is not another dozen self-actualized, encouraged individuals, or even another million such people. What is vital to our survival and critical for the continuance of our culture is to understand our common humanity and mutual destiny.

This is what King declared. There is little profit in examining the flaws, failures and future of Civil Rights in America if we are forced to view it through the false frame of a historical myth.

One can simply consider the views surrounding Edward Snowden and Julian Assange to assess where one is in the civil rights conversations of today. Yes the rights of LBGT populations to marriage and full acceptance are valid, but I would argue that they are merely the water fountains, lunch counters and bus stations of our day. The challenge now, as it was then, is bigger than that.

Today we must engage a critique and confrontation over the aggregate wealth of the planet measured in access to and corruption of resources, as well as the naked opulence of the uber-rich.

For any who would look, the perils on humanity’s horizon are plain to see. From the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains to the Western face of the Alleghenys, America has become a sea stained with the decaying waste of a decomposed industrial age. Her factories, once alive with the clanking grind of subduing the earth, now languish and rust in the still silence of death. The workers who once fed her coal and sweat in order to feed their families now sit idle and hungry.

American farms which once fed the world are parched with drought and then flash-flooded by a climate hell-bent on retaliatory strikes. Her crops are soiled with genetically modified organisms in experiments that would have made Dr. Frankenstein blush.

The Fatal Flaw in America — Preference for the Rich

There has always been a fatal flaw in the design of America — in the very idea of America. This flaw is embedded in its Constitution and its very Declaration of Independence. This flaw has been the midwife of all our laws, it is the mother of our slavery and the father of our racism.

This flaw is the obscene, unbridled deference to and preference for the rich. It is an unsustainable paradox; one cannot extol the virtue of the rapist. The uber-rich and the policies they espouse must be exposed that all can see the darkness they promote. It is time to have a conversation about maximum wages. It is time to proportionally link the minimum wage to the maximum wage and thereby begin the process of rationalizing the notion of work and embrace the substantive equality of all humanity.

There is a further challenge. The age in which we exist has produced an idolization of information, as if data was determinative. Information does not necessarily inform. Decisions as well as destinies are determined by the state and size of one’s heart and not by the data at one’s disposal. Individualism and the religion of information are the dark forces at play in our world. They are the twin demons deluding us into the trance of our destruction.

The planet is speaking and too few are listening. The poor are weeping and too few are concerned. The despised and rejected of men are incarcerated, detained and deported.

There is no doubt as to whose interests are served by our lethargy. We must take up the struggle of our age with the tactics of our history. We must engage to insure that the Commonwealth is employed for the Common Good. If becoming involves the pain of being, and being requires the practice of community, then the duty of our time is laid bare before us. We must turn our hearts, hands and help to the poor, huddled masses yearning to be free.

Like the Christ of the Gospels, we must preach the news of alternative economic possibilities, heal the hopes of those who no longer believe, empower paradigms of powerlessness, and release the unjustly incarcerated. The Bible declares this to be the acceptable work of the Lord. I would suggest that the Lord has no other hands to do this work but our own.

Prayer: Dear Lord Jesus it comes to me to speak again and I wish to do so on your behalf and at your behest. Empower my thoughts, enliven my words, breathe life into the moments these words are read or heard that the very world might change in honor and deference to your majesty.

Rev. Brian Woodson is an Oakland pastor and a staff organizer with EBASE, East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy.

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