As our nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of the tribulations and triumphs of 1968, many herald the struggles and victories of the civil rights movement as the foundation for subsequent black progress. Yet, while we celebrate the accomplishments of the movement and its impact on policy, legislation and culture, we’ve largely forgotten a key element that gave it life and power — the robust, honest debate about strategies to achieve its goals.
Martin Luther King Jr. advocated the strategy of nonviolent resistance, which eventually led to the victories of the movement. There was room for competing points of view — ranging from Stokely Carmichael and the demands of his Black Power movement to those who were critical of King’s declaration that the greatest stumbling block to black progress was not the white Citizens’ Councils or the Ku Klux Klan, but the white moderate, fearing that he was jeopardizing their financial support.
This atmosphere of debate on strategy carried on a longstanding legacy of black leadership. Even during the era of slavery, the spectrum of voices included accommodationists who sought justice and rights within the slave laws of America; insurrectionists who advocated the use of force; and those who promoted a return to meccas of resettlement such as Sierra Leone and Liberia. At the same time, other blacks vigorously protested against the idea of leaving a country that had been built on the back of their forced labor; they cast their lot with the abolitionists and others working to dismantle the system of slavery.
Following Emancipation, the turn-of-the-century years were characterized by vigorous dialogue between preeminent black leaders of the day such as Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. While the militant Douglass and the younger, more conservative Washington both promoted economic self-sufficiency for newly-freed blacks, they differed on the extent to which their goals could be achieved within the existing system.
As the century progressed, Washington’s gospel of black entrepreneurship and industrial training was challenged by yet another outstanding black thinker, W.E.B. DuBois, who espoused the concept of the “Talented Tenth,” an intellectual elite of social scientists and humanists who would create a black technocracy. DuBois set forth, for generations of black Americans, educational achievement as a vehicle for integration and acceptance into the mainstream of American society.
Tapping into the disillusionment of urban blacks following the first World War, Harlem-based Marcus Garvey glorified the African past as a source of pride and self-respect, and by the mid-1920s, the “Back to Africa” rallying cry of his Universal Negro Improvement Association had attracted nearly a million followers.
Free and open debate provided the backdrop for ideas to advance and take hold within the black community, the strongest ones emerging because of the underlying arguments.
Since the death of Dr. King, however, open and honest debate within the black community has dwindled. As a consequence, though the United States has spent trillions of dollars on anti-poverty programs, one-third of black America is in danger of becoming a permanent underclass. Blacks now have political control of the country’s major cities.
While this scenario has been a boon to middle- and upper-class blacks who are employed within the government programs’ bureaucracies and have entered the ranks of elected and appointed officials, conditions of low-income blacks have continued to deteriorate. So, if political empowerment, the passage of civil rights laws, and a proliferation of high price-tag poverty programs have not yielded the promised benefits for those who are most in need, what should we do? Have low-income blacks been a casualty of the War on Poverty? How do we achieve victory in a war that we have won?
As Dr. King said, the highest expression of maturity is the ability to be self-critical. As a person who went to jail and fought hard in the civil rights movement, I unequivocally affirm my commitment to that movement. But I must also affirm my commitment to the truth: many of those who sacrificed most in the struggle for civil rights did not benefit from the change. When the doors of opportunity were opened, only those who were equipped to take advantage of those opportunities benefitted.
Yet, today, a monolithic voice of “spokespersons” for the black community insists that the villain that obstructs the rise of low-income and poor blacks is the inevitable legacy of the eras of slavery and Jim Crow laws and their vestiges, ranging from “institutional racism” to “microaggressions.” Guilt-ridden whites are too eager to self-flagellate and indulge in the patronizing exercise of accepting their “white privilege.”
An entire industry built around this racial-grievance narrative has emerged and has been profitable for those at its helm — including those who have capitalized on “white guilt,” such as those who have garnered hundreds of thousands of dollars for racial-sensitivity training in public and private institutions.
Sadly, an admonition from Booker T. Washington remains applicable today: “I am afraid that there is a certain class of race problem-solvers who don’t want the patient to get well because, as long as the disease holds out, they have not only an easy means of making a living, but also an easy medium through which to make themselves prominent before the public.”
The insistence on applying race-specific solutions to economic problems has snatched defeat from the jaws of our civil rights victories. We need to come together as a nation to address the problems of poverty by empowering those at the bottom. We must give them the opportunity to excel and participate in the free enterprise system. For many, a component of this is reviving the principles of self-determination, personal responsibility, vision and values.
This venture will require open and free debate regarding strategy, and the recognition of a new brand of “experts.” The destiny of those who have been left behind — and of this nation — depends upon what we do today.
Robert L. Woodson Sr. founded The Woodson Center in 1981 to help residents of low-income neighborhoods address problems of their communities. He has headed the National Urban League Department of Criminal Justice, and has been a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Foundation for Public Policy Research. Follow him on Twitter@BobWoodson.