By Lisa Snowden-McCray, Special to the AFRO
Last weekend, Georgia’s Rep. John Lewis marched alongside thousands of others in the March for Our Lives – an ant-gun violence gathering that took place in Washington, D.C.
“You must never give up, never give in. Keep your place and have victory,” he told the crowd.
Lewis has lived those words. Even before he crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on Bloody Sunday, Lewis, the son of sharecroppers had made a name for himself as an immovable fighter for civil rights. He’s lauded as an elder statesman now, a civil rights hero because even as his profile rose, he never abandoned his central, humble desire for change.
He’s not the only one of the civil rights “old guard” – people who have been fighting for change for decades – who remains vibrant and active even now. California Rep. Maxine Waters has picked up a new generation of supporters through her unyielding, and very vocal, call-outs of President Donald Trump. Rev. Al Sharpton is also still very active, especially with his civil rights organization, the National Action Network. As is Jesse Jackson, although he’s been sidelined somewhat recently with a Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis.
The question now, though, is this: as unarmed Black people are murdered in the streets by police (most recently, Danny Ray Thomas in Houston, Texas and Stephon Clark in Sacramento, California), as White supremacists, emboldened by the election of President Donald Trump, emerge from the shadows, as deadly and dangerous as ever – who are the new leaders of the civil rights movement?
There is Baltimore native DeRay Mckesson, notable for his blue Patagonia vest. Mckesson became a familiar face during the protests that sprung up in Ferguson, Missouri after 18-year-old Mike Brown was shot and killed by a police officer, and here in Baltimore in the uprising that happened after Freddie Gray’s death. Now, he’s seen less often on the streets but he can be heard on his political podcast, entitled Pod Save the People. Mckesson also has a book coming out next September, “On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope.” Mckesson says he hopes to discuss activism, justice, and racism in America.
Widening the scope, Barack Obama secured his place in history by becoming the first Black president, but could one accurately call him a civil rights leader? Obama used his time in office to serve as a proud patron of Black arts – hosting actors, rappers and musicians at the White House. He also began My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative designed to empower young Black men. However, Obama has taken heat from some corners of the Black community for not moving fast enough on some Black issues, and for his criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement, by telling members they should respect police and that they can’t just “keep on yelling.”
Then there is California senator Kamala Harris, whose rise to popularity has driven many to compare her to Obama. She was the first person of color and first women elected to be California’s attorney general. She is now California’s first Black senator. She’s also a tireless fighter for the rights of DACA recipients.
Still, Harris has been criticized for her stance on ICE (the former prosecutor recently said on MSNBC “I believe that there needs to be serious, severe and swift consequence when people commit serious and violent crimes…and certainly if they are undocumented they should be deported if they commit those serious and violent offenses. So yes, ICE has a purpose, ICE has a role, ICE should exist. But let’s not abuse the power.”)
And while we are talking about slickly packaged erstwhile civil rights stars, we can’t forget Baltimore States Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who is currently running for re-election. Mosby will be forever linked to the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, and fact that she filed criminal charges against the six officers who were involved in his arrest (even though none of them were ultimately convicted). She was recently honored by the NAACP during their 2017 convention in Baltimore, and regularly hosts fundraisers with big stars (she has one coming up with ESPN’s Lisa Salters).
However, this comes with that fact that her department is at least tangentially caught up in historic-level corruption in Baltimore’s police department, and while she faces criticism from Black activists in the city – including Kelly Davis, the wife of Keith Davis, a man who maintains he was set up by Baltimore City Police in the killing of a Pimlico security guard in June of 2015. The Davis’ say that Mosby’s office continues to pursue charges against Keith even though his case has proven to be extremely flawed. There is also Tawanda Jones, a Black woman who says her brother, Tyrone West, was killed by Baltimore City Police in 2013. Jones has asked Mosby’s office to reopen the case, so far to no avail.
So where does this leave us?
The push-pull of what progress looks like for Black Americans has been going on for centuries. Remember the debate between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington? Or the historical framing that sometimes pits Martin Luther King against Malcolm X?
It’s no coincidence that Obama, Harris, and even Mosby have faced very vocal criticism from more left-aligned Black people. The Black Lives Matter movement has been a rowdy, wakeup call for many Democratic leaders, especially those who know that they need active and engaged young people to continue doing the work that they do. Even established civil rights groups like the NAACP have been left scrambling, figuring out what to do with these activists.
Young people have actually interrupted events put on by Sharpton and the like, demanding that their wants and needs be addressed.
But it’s nothing new.
“The young grass-roots activists I’ve spoken to have a broad suite of concerns: the school-to-prison pipeline, educational inequality, the over-policing of black and Latino communities. In essence, they’re trying to take on deeply entrenched discrimination that is fueled less by showy bigotry than systemic, implicit biases,” Gene Demby wrote in a 2015 piece for Politico Magazine about the new civil rights movement.
It’s good to both widen what we expect from this country, and also be more specific in how we target our fight.
The job, then, its to be discerning and understand that most people have faults, but to keep looking forward. And to keep looking beyond the glitz and accolades for organizers on the ground, doing the work to become the next generation of civil rights leaders.
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