AS THE WORLD WATCHED
“Without a struggle, there can be no progress.” -Frederick Douglass
As we near the end of Black History Month, it is important that we, as a Black community, maintain ownership of our history, and continue to reflect on the strategic genius that was a signature of the Civil Rights movement, along with the people who led it. The United States is still a relatively young country, and the scars of its original sin of slavery run deep. There are still significant layers of pain and suffering from the recent past that we, as a country, need to heal from. The stories of our Civil Rights heroes need to be told, and retold, over and over again, so that we never forget the blood-stained path that our community has traveled.
In a lot of ways, America is an idea. It is a grand experiment. America is one of the few nations ever to grace the face of the earth, where sons and daughters of former slaves, and sons and daughters of former slave-owners have attempted to live together as equals. In many respects, the outcome of this experiment still remain to be seen, but whatever the ultimate result is, the Black experience has always been one of constant struggle in the face of structural and societal discrimination. The 1950’s and 1960’s, in particular, served as a touchstone flashpoint period, when the demands by Blacks for fairness and equality could no longer be satisfied by empty rhetoric or placation. As injustice built upon injustice, and indignity built upon indignity, the movement moved into high gear, capturing the attention of the country, and the World, as they became more familiar to the plight of the African American Negro.
The spark that set the movement ablaze was the courageous act of Rosa Parks, fondly referred to as “The Mother of the Civil Rights Movement”, who refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus to a White patron. For 381 days, Blacks refused to ride buses, at great personal sacrifice. As they walked mile after mile, and complete strangers carpooled for the cause, the community grew stronger and more united, bound together by a common sense of purpose. As fate would have it, the Montgomery Bus Boycott not only revealed the power found in collective organization, but it also birthed a son and a leader, named Martin Luther King, who would forever change the course of American history.
It is important for young and old alike, to understand and process this strategic bit of genius that runs contrary to common belief: Although often referred to as a “nonviolent” movement, the Civil Rights Movement was anything but nonviolent, and its leaders NEVER intended for it to be nonviolent.
In fact, the Civil Rights Movement thrived on violence. It NEEDED violence to advance its cause. As the people marched, there was a deliberate, calculated reason that Dr. King urged supporters to not respond physically to their White assailants. There was the sacrificial brilliance of parents who took themselves and their young children to the frontlines, at risk of being beaten by hoses, and bitten by dogs. Why? Because the leaders of the movement, and their followers, knew that these images of hostility would be beamed every night over the evening news, shocking the soul of the nation into action.
The Civil Rights Movement was not meant to win over the afflicted, since Blacks living through daily indignities didn’t need to be convinced that they were being mistreated. Neither was it meant to win over those with an intractable hatred of non-White minorities, because their views were too deeply entrenched. Rather, the movement was designed to sway those who had been laying in ambivalent dormancy, who felt an element of pity towards the Black plight, but not enough to actively take a stand and demand a halt to the inequality. Without violence, the movement may have sputtered, as its opponents continuously urged Blacks to be patient, utilize submissive supplication, and wait for things to unfold in their own “natural” time. Nothing else would have bent the curve of social justice for the Black cause in quite the same manner that raw, unmitigated hatred and bigotry could. Dr. King and the rest of the freedom fighters understood this, and played upon the racism of the Dixie South, as a concerto would play a finely tuned Stradivarius violin. Although it would ultimately cost Dr. King his life, his death became the cumulating act of violence, and would be the impetus that pushed President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
And yet, the battle for American equality continues in 2012 as essentially the same play, but with different actors.
With the election of the first Black president, it has almost become a full time task to demand the same amount of respect for the Office of the President, as previous presidents have long since enjoyed. Barack Obama’s grace and strength as President carries much of the same nonviolent and longsuffering undertones that were characteristic of the Civil Rights Movement. However, just like the movement, it exposes and highlights the deep-seated racism that many in our society secretly harbor. Indeed, although passive on its face, his patience and tolerance is actually an act of militancy, once again smashing the myth of a post-racial society, and pulling back the curtains on America’s latent sin of White privilege, and ethnic intolerance.
During this month of Black history, as we celebrate our past, acknowledge our present, and look with hopeful eyes to the future, we should take comfort in knowing that this is how social change often occurs in America. Victory is often slow in coming, but come it must.
And it will.
Written by C. Frank Igwe, PhD