|A piano lesson at the King family home.|
Observing the nature of the progress that has taken place in the Black community over to past 50 years, one can't help but notice the theme of advancement of a middle class. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's was in large part led by middle class, college-educated Black youths. Those people, mostly men, took to to the streets with an intellectualized sense of struggle and pursued their ends through institutional means. Their work, while indispensable, didn't express the totality of the Black experience and neither could their solutions.
I wrote recently on the need to recognize a "new guard" within Black leadership or at least to encourage a transition from the old one. One of the reasons outlined in the previous piece was the disconnect between the mechanisms of change used by the existing Black leadership and their incompatibility with the modern challenges to the Black community. In other words, marching may have seen its heyday and the problems that persist (or those that were created from the legacy of integration) need a new approach, new eyes, and new blood.
I recognized within writing the previous post that there is also a clear undercurrent of class within conversations of Black leadership. This undercurrent is a familiar one. Far before the split in ideologies of leaders like Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the goal of freedom had been envisioned differently as far back as DuBois and Washington. In order to assess the goals and effectiveness of Civil Rights era leaders, it is important to consider their socioeconomic backgrounds the statuses of those whom they led.
King and sister Christin upon their
graduations from Morehouse and
The Black church in these places is still thriving as are other institutions such as banks, retailers, etc. In Atlanta, there is even the famed Old Fourth Ward, which holds Auburn Avenue, the jewel of the city's Black economic power. It is on this street where Dr. King's father presided over Ebenezer Baptist Church and in this neighborhood where he grew up.
|King (bottom r) and his line brothers|
of Alpha Phi Alpha at Boston Univ.
Through living in his segmented community, a young Martin indulged in all of the experiences of typical of American middle class life - albeit they hyphenated experiences. Unlike his Northern or poorer counterparts, he was barred from a full experience but not from life itself. I assert that integration was a middle class goal of the Civil Rights Movement. It defined freedom as acceptance by whites into their institutions, institutions that the Black middle class of that period were already familiar with. So it should be no surprise that Martin and his contemporaries used the tools of their relatively privileged upbringings to arm themselves in their efforts to challenge the kind oppression that they knew firsthand.
To Dr. King's credit, he was more than a upwardly mobile preacher's son who stumbled into a movement. He was also a scholar and probably an instrument of God. As such, the scope of his agenda did eventually evolve past the immediate concerns of the Black middle class to sit at lunch counters, shop in department stores, and vote in some parts of the South. Towards the end of his life he was working on giving Black and poor Americans reasons for which to vote through the Poor People's Campaign. Towards the end, he was talking about economic and political freedom from the bottom up. He began addressing the issues that still trouble the waters of Black advancement today.
The issue is that those who fought by his side, the John Lewis[es], Andrew Young[s], and Jesse Jackson[s] of the world, seem comfortable with those middle class gains and too complacent in their achievements to take up King's last cause. In my humble opinion, the movement stopped with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (despite how active its leaders may seem.) And to my estimate, the criticism so often hurled at young, and poor Black Americans by the old guard is rooted in a belief that the good fight has been fought and won - that the lack of tangible progress in the Black community is due to a lack of appreciative reaping on behalf of this generation's youth.
Whenever criticism is turned back at its various sources, a familiar complaint is heard. "Do you know what they've sacrificed?" some will ask. To that I offer this bold question: For what should the Black youth of this country be thankful? Overall, has the condition of Black America been made better by benefits of integration? Are little Black children educated and housed alongside little White boys and girls as Dr. King so famously dreamed? Did the leaders of the Civil Right Movement, like Jesus, pay it all?