BLACK VOICES
01/15/2013 07:03 pm ET Updated Jan 21, 2013

Leaders See Civil Rights Activism Lull In Post-MLK World

By 1968, President Lyndon Johnson -- a man brought into office by an assassin's bullet -- had already convinced Congress to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act the following year.

The bills put the full force of federal law behind the rights of black and other disenfranchised Americans to vote and use a wide variety of public facilities. But one other measure that Johnson and many civil rights activists saw as essential -- The Fair Housing Act -- had languished in Congress for three years. In April of that year, Congress finally passed the bill. It was just days after another assassin's bullet sliced through Martin Luther King Jr.'s neck and jaw, killing the civil rights leader in Memphis.

Nearly 45 years later, the desire to memorialize King and his nonviolent struggle for a broad range of civil, labor and economic rights, has changed. Most notably, in some circles, civil rights work is publicly disparaged and described as the focus of opportunists and racists, according to historians, political scientists and social activists who spoke with Huffington Post this week. The climate around civil rights has shifted. Conditions often appear unfriendly, the experts said.

This year, the Supreme Court is set to hear and decide cases that could rip the heart out of the Voting Rights Act, eliminate affirmative action in higher education admissions decisions and govern the ability of gay Americans to legally marry. But most public efforts to memorialize King and his work will focus largely on when and where to volunteer on the federal King holiday, rather than push for broad social change or expanded equality, said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, a nonprofit civil rights organization that uses technology and modern organizing tactics to challenge inequality, injustice and discrimination.

"The movement for service is important, and it does absolutely reflect one aspect of King's intentions," said Robinson.

Color of Change may be best known for its efforts to reduce the influence of the American Legislative Council (ALEC), and this week, for its role in what The Daily Beast/Newsweek described as the still-unconfirmed plans of the Oxygen cable network to cancel a planned reality TV show featuring a rapper and the 10 women who are the mothers of his 11 children, called "All My Babies' Mammas," after advertiser push-back. Color of Change is one of just a few civil rights organizations that do not accept corporate funding.

"But beyond service, Dr. King's work was about us stepping up and being better servants to humanity," Robinson said. "So it is nice to say, 'We want to go and paint the school and volunteer [on the Martin Luther King holiday],' but we also need to ask the hard questions about why the schools in some neighborhoods need to be painted or cleaned and some don't. And if we aren't asking those questions or demanding answers and change, then we aren't doing Dr. King's work."

In the years after King's death, a series of social and political events left the country with a Congress that was increasingly unwilling -- and some say unable -- to aggressively add to the nation's stock of civil rights laws or closely monitor and strengthen those already in place, said Nathan K. Kotz, the journalist, writer and historian behind the 2006 book, Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws That Changed America.

The trio of civil rights bills passed by Congress between 1964 and 1968 ushered in a political backlash and new era in which race became a still-frequent, but less explicit, force in American public life, said Kotz. Southern states started sending Republicans -- most of them deeply opposed to civil rights legislation -- to Congress. Johnson, first distracted then stymied by efforts to escalate the nation's involvement in the Vietnam War, had a harder time in those years championing measures focused on expanding access to opportunity, creating real equality or reducing poverty, Kotz said.

Democrats who could no longer count on the votes of working-class white voters in the North or South became increasingly worried about what the integration of schools, neighborhoods and industries would mean in their own lives. In the years that followed, politicians beginning with Richard Nixon perfected the dark art of appealing to those fears in coded, sometimes oblique, but racially charged ways. Congress became what some economists describe as irrationally fixated on reducing the country's deficit through limits on domestic social program spending, Kotz said.

"Sound familiar? It should," Kotz said. "There are some definite parallels between that time, this rather stagnant period for civil rights following the monumental gains of the 1960s, and now."

After the November presidential election, Mitt Romney attributed his loss, in part, to the "gifts" or social programs that Obama "gave" to minorities.

To be clear, King and other activists involved in the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s weren't universally lauded in their lifetimes, said Lewis V. Baldwin, a long-time King scholar and professor of religious studies at Vanderbilt University. Baldwin wrote the 2002 book To Make the Wounded Whole, along with six others about King.

Some regarded King as a communist, a rabble-rouser interested in publicity or upsetting the social order and regional "traditions." Some thought he wanted to push too much change on the country too quickly -- including some of black America's most prominent figures. The FBI tapped King's phones and surveilled his activities. But King's writings and speeches, degrees from top-tier schools, and even his tailored-suit and hat-wearing approach to activism seemed to convince successive generations of progressive activists that social movements could not only be successful and respectable, but also that they did not have to include physical confrontations or violence.

"Of course today, Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, people like the Rev. Calvin Butts in New York -- and yes, even the Rev. Jeremiah Wright -- point out the inequalities and injustices that remain in this country, its history and its truth, and they are called publicity-seekers and charlatans and un-American," Baldwin said.

In December 2011, the U.S. Justice Department discovered that the Fair Housing Act, first passed in 1968 just after King's death, didn't stop some of the nation's biggest banks and mortgage lenders from steering and then approving black and Latino homebuyers for higher-cost and riskier loans than were offered to white buyers with similar credit scores. As a result, many black and Latino families saw their wealth dissolve into thin air, eroding much of the economic progress made over the last 30 years.

"It's become really popular to talk about how race doesn't matter," said Robinson. "As a matter of fact, in the 10 to 20 minutes after Gabby Douglas won a medal, you had Bob Costas opining for a national audience about how race doesn't play that much of a role unless 'they see themselves that way,' as if people of color sort of make up the problems of race."

Obama is president. Oprah Winfrey is one of the wealthiest women in the world. Both rank consistently among the nation's most admired citizens. And Obama was reelected to a historic second term with the support of 41 percent of white voters.

But nearly 28 percent of the nation's black population lived in poverty in 2011, the most recent year for which detailed data is available, compared to about 13 percent of whites and 25 percent of Latinos. Wage gaps remained so prevalent that women collectively earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to Census data. And for black and Latina women, the figures remain far worse.

Blacks and Latinos frequently receive harsher sentences for crimes. In the nation's schools serving large numbers of students of color, stringent security is more common than top-notch teachers, Robinson said.

"That moment after Gabby Douglas won," said Robinson, "would have been a good moment to say that the fact that in 2012 she can participate and win, but remains such an anomaly -- the very fact that there aren't six more Gabby Douglases waiting in the wings -- those are examples of the real challenges that we still face in this country."

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