Working on the Unfinished Business 50 Years Later
Update 8/29/2013: A slightly longer version has since been cross-posted here on HuffPost Black Voices.
Update 8/29/2013: The “Black Lives Matter” signage didn’t make it into the video, but it’s still worth watching when you get a moment.
Author’s note: I meant for this to be published elsewhere but basically ran out of time to query, etc. So this is more work-related than what I normally allow on this blog, but I wanted to share it today, so here it is.
I’m an 80s baby who works in the fields of higher education administration and social justice research. A few weeks ago, organizers of an on-campus commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom asked everyone at work who was interested to record a statement about the event to go with an exhibit in the library. As we spoke our statements, we held up signs that read, “Black Lives Matter,” the meme we began to see after George Zimmerman was acquitted.
The Monday after the George Zimmerman verdict was a dismal day at work. An unarmed black child’s life had been snatched from him by a man who presumed he was dangerous just because he was black, presumed he didn’t belong in that neighborhood just because he was black, and that child’s killer was found not guilty after the defense painted the child as a thug, a stereotypical young black male who would be a criminal and a burden to the entire nation. That this could happen 50 years after the March on Washington, 50 years after Medgar Evers was assassinated in his driveway, 50 years after four little girls were killed when Klansmen bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, 50 years after W.E.B. DuBois—who wrote a hundred years ago, “How does it feel to be a problem? To have your very body and the bodies of your children to be assumed to be criminal, violent, malignant?”—died, made it worse. On one hand, there’s been monumental change in law, but on the other hand, we have made so little progress with regard to racism in this country.
As I read the text of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in preparation for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I saw that in my lifetime, the speech, the march, that moment and almost the entire movement have been sanitized down to the line, “judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” King’s outcry for freedom has been turned into diversity initiatives and proud declarations of colorblindness.
King said, “Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
We’re still in that “until” period. As a Gen X-er, I haven’t experienced the overt discrimination, abject humiliation or unconscionable brutality of Jim Crow. I’ve reaped the benefits of others’ endurance, resistance and determination, but I’ve still been left with the civil rights movement’s unfinished business. Mass incarceration, the school to prison pipeline, poverty, high unemployment in black communities, immigration, environmental racism, the Supreme Court dismantling the Voting Rights Act, Trayvon Martin’s murder, the presumed pathology and disposability of black and brown people—50 years since King said it, “the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.” And this country still must change.