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50 years later What do we do NOW?

Bernal-E-Smith-ii-160Fifty years, half a century, five decades – a milestone by any standard, and a sufficient passing of time to allow for deep reflection and measurement of one's relative position and progress with great expectation of significant growth and accomplishment.

One might simultaneously reflect in some disappointment with a lack of forward progress and achievement and even more so with a retardation of growth during a space of 600 months.

Understanding of both are necessary to answer the most urgent question of today: Where do we go from here?

As numerous celebrations, acknowledgements and commemorations have come and gone for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, it is clear that it marked a watershed moment for the United States. And most certainly for African Americans in our on-going quest for equitable opportunity and evolution as citizens in a country where we were once held as chattel property, counted as 3/5th of a person, and ruled by the U.S. Supreme Court as non-citizens with the inability to bring legal actions before the courts. (Dred Scot vs. Sandford 1857)

The momentum of the movement and the march of 1963 would lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The funny thing about momentum is that as much as you can build it towards a crescendo of accomplishment, you can just as quickly lose it, finding it difficult (at best) to recapture. It's like that basketball team that presses its way to a 20-point lead but relaxes its sense of urgency to end up losing the game by 2 points; great demonstration of potential but ultimately no victory.

So it stands that during the past 50 years, the momentum of the movement and the energy, passion and effort emanating from the march of 1963 began to wane, and wane significantly. Less significant legislation would be passed during the 1970's, while the remaining decades would see significant retractions in key parts of legislation that was meant to achieve equity and equality in economic, civil and human rights.

Without question, it is the laws of the land that establish the environment and systems by which economic, educational and civil achievement (or the lack thereof) is ultimately obtained by people under that law, making the system of voting and lawmaking critical to every aspect of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Influences to that system, such as public protest of the 1960's, seem to have lost their momentum and impact, while the backroom influence of lobbyist and the ultra wealthy has grown to epic proportions to the detriment of the masses.

St. Augustine once said, " ... an unjust law is no law at all." And no truer words have ever been spoken. When one could be killed for teaching a slave to read, people of African decent in America found ways to learn to read anyway. When only white male property owners had the right to vote, women and people of color fought for the right to vote and obtained it. Clearly, the types and kinds of laws that go into effect at local, state and federal levels create the dynamics by which quality of life is improved or significantly hampered for citizens governed by that law.

An evaluation of key life indicators for African Americans since 1963 shows severely stagnant or "hampered" growth and quality of life:

• Black unemployment remains in the double digits and twice that of whites, and from 1963 to 2012 averaged 11.6 percent. Meaning blacks as a whole have remained in a perpetual recession during the last 50 years.

• Blacks continued to be incarcerated at significantly higher rates than whites and have significantly higher potential to be involved with the criminal justice system. According to the Pew Research Center, blacks are six times as likely to be incarcerated as whites. In 1960. for every 100,000 persons there were 1,313 black inmates and 262 white inmates. In 2010 there were 4,347 blacks compared to 678 whites.

• The black poverty rate is not declining but growing. The biggest drop in black poverty came in the decade of the 1960's. From 2001 to 2011 it grew from approximately 21 percent to 28 percent and remains three times the poverty rate of whites, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

• Black family life has declined. Increased rates of single-family households, out-of-wedlock births and divorce rates have negatively impacted families and poverty. According to Pew, in 1960, 61 percent of black adults were married. In 2011, only 31 percent, and although marriage has declined across the board, the decline has been significantly greater in black households. The U.S. Census recently reported 52.1 percent of black children living in single parent households compared to only 19.9 percent of white children. Stress, other health factors, lack of insurance and poverty levels are all impacted by these statistics.

• The wealth and income gap between blacks and whites has grown, and for the past 30 years the gap has not only NOT improved but has grown, especially since the Great Recession beginning in 2008. White wealth is now six times that of blacks.

• In a perpetuation of the vestiges of slavery, (Willie Lynch, Jim Crow and the like) the rate of black-on-black violent crime continues to be alarmingly high, with little to no attention, effort or resources. According the Bureau of Justice stats, nearly 9,000 African Americans are murdered each year, with 93 percent of those coming at the hands of other African Americans. In a 10-year period that's 100,000 people – almost double the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam during that 13-year war.

Where do we go from here?

More marches, more protest?

Organizing? Planning?

Cooperative economics and strategies?

VOTING IN MASS early and often?

More loving and less hating and "hatin' on each other?''

More reading and less watching?

More saving and building and less spending?

More attention to the issues and less to the shoes (red bottoms, clothes and bling)?

Demanding better education, better health care, better access to opportunity, business, resources and housing?

Ultimately, the answer is a resounding YES to all of these, coupled with a swift sense of purpose and evasive consistent action that will begin a new movement.

The next wave of momentum that will produce significant positive change and be reflected on 50 years from now will come only when we adopt, move and never lose what Dr. King called, "the fierce urgency of now."

Understanding the trials of the past, yesterday has gone and tomorrow has not yet arrived. It is what we do with NOW that truly matters.

(Bernal E. Smith II is President/Publisher of The New Tri-State Defender. Email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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