February 4, 2010
By EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON
The nostalgia, accolades, tributes and fond remembrances at the
opening of the International Civil Rights CenterGreensboro, N.C.,
were heartfelt and much deserved. and Museum in
The museum occupies that building that 50 years ago was a Woolworth's
department store. It was there that the four black college students
sat in at the store's "whites-only" lunch counter.
Their in-your-face defiant act pushed, prodded and shoved the
mainstream civil rights organizations and that included Martin
Luther King Jr.'s out of their safe, accepted, play-by-the-system's
rules in the war against Jim Crow segregation. It also indelibly
changed the course of the Civil Rights Movement in America.
The student sit-ins worked largely because the protestors were the
frontline fighters of the Civil Rights Movement. The movement then
stood on virtually hallowed moral ground in America. It was classic
good versus evil.
Many white Americans then were sickened by gory news scenes of
baton-wielding racist Southern sheriffs, fire hoses, police dogs and
Ku Klux Klan violence unleashed against peaceful black protesters.
Racial segregation was considered by most Americans to be immoral and
indefensible, and civil rights activists were hailed as martyrs and
heroes in the fight for justice. In the next few years, the torrent
of demonstrations, sit-ins, marches and civil rights legislation
obliterated the legal barriers of segregation.
But as America unraveled in the 1960s in the anarchy of urban riots,
campus takeovers and antiwar street battles, the Civil Rights
Movement came apart. It fell victim to its own success and failure.
When the civil rights leaders broke down the racially restricted
doors of corporations, government agencies and universities,
middle-class blacks, not the poor, rushed headlong through them.
Five decades later, there are now two black Americas.
There's the celebrated, well-to-do and comfortable black America of
Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Robert Johnson, Bill Cosby, Denzel
Washington and the legions of millionaire black athletes and
entertainers, businesspeople and professionals. They have grabbed a
big slice of America's pie.
Meanwhile, the black America of the poor is fragmented and
politically rudderless. Lacking competitive technical skills and
professional training, and shunned by many middle-class black
leaders, they have been shoved even further to the outer margins of
American society. The chronic problems of gang and drug violence,
family breakdown, police abuse, the soaring incarceration rate of
young black males, the mounting devastation of HIV and AIDS in black
communities, and abysmally failing inner-city public schools have
made things even worse for them.
The murder of King was a major turning point for race relations in
America. It marked the end of the era when the fight for civil rights
was hailed as an honored American tradition, and civil rights leaders
were put on a high pedestal.
The self-destruction from within black organizations and political
sabotage from without left the old Civil Rights Movement
organizationally fragmented and politically adrift. The black poor,
lacking competitive technical skills and professional training,
became expendable jail and street fodder and were pushed even further
to the outer frontier of society. Many turned to gangs, guns and
drugs to survive.
At the same time, many whites, appalled at the urban riots, black
militancy and other factors, no longer cheered for civil rights. The
seeds of the conservative revolt that budded during the Ronald Reagan
years exploded full-blown in the 1990s with the assault on
affirmative action and social programs, and the demand for more
prisons, police and tougher laws.
The heroic Greensboro students would never dream that the checklist
of problems that screamed for civil rights activism and protest by
them would be just as lengthy today as they were when they sat in at
the whites-only Woolworth counter about a half-century ago. But they are.
There's the astronomically high unemployment among young blacks;
gaping racial disparities in the criminal justice system;
resegregation of neighborhoods and schools; rampant housing
discrimination; racial glass ceilings in corporate hiring and
promotions; black family instability among the black poor; police
abuse; racial profiling; and racially motivated hate crimes.
The historic election of President Obama owes much to the brave
action of the four students that sat in at Woolworth's about a
half-century ago, and Obama has on more than one occasion paid
tribute and acknowledged his debt of gratitude to the Civil Rights
Movement that their sit-ins energized.
But Obama has repeatedly acknowledged that the problems of poverty
and inequality that led the students to refuse to budge from the
lunch counter are still just as glaring and urgent today.
The sit-ins are fondly remembered 50 years later as a movement that
upped the ante on the civil rights fight in America.
But it also must be remembered that it's a fight that still's unfinished.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His book,
"How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge" (Middle
Passage Press), was released Jan. 27. Copies of his book can be
purchased at Lucy Florence Coffee House, 3351 W. 43rd St., in Leimert
Park, Los Angeles