In celebration of Black History Month, we at the New York Urban League brought together four next-generation leaders to talk about the state of the civil rights movement in the 21st century.
What unfolded was a provocative conversation that touched on many themes such as class, equity, apathy and honoring our elders. In two hours, we developed few solutions, but it was evident that, contrary to negative stereotypes, 20- and 30-year-olds genuinely care about their communities.
The Civil Rights Struggle is More Complex
Each of our panelists, which included Damon Hewitt of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Tamika Mallory of the National Action Network, Basil Smikle of Basil Smikle and Associates and Sheena Wright of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, agreed that the civil rights movement has changed and evolved over time.
Rev. Jesse Jackson says that it has turned into a "silver" rights movement where economic parity is the greatest issue facing our community. U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been quoted as saying that education is the greatest civil rights issue of our time.
There was no disagreement here at all.
The quality of children's educations can be directly tied to their zip codes, as can the number of those who are incarcerated. Education has been an equalizer for some but not all African-Americans. Those who've had access to strong education know that well. Because the experiences of black students differ more profoundly than they did even a few decades ago, there are more opinions and perspectives on the problems and how to fix them now than ever before.
Today's Leaders are Different
The leaders of today's civil rights movement are different. Many of them have had experiences that their older counterparts would never have imagined. Many have attended majority schools and have grown up watching integrated Sesame Street on television. Twenty-first century leaders are at the helm of traditionally black organizations, as well as corporate, government and non-profit entities.
Sure, we all have our own race narrative about the first time we were called the "n-word" or treated poorly in a store or other public place. But we also had the images of Rev. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X along with the expectation that we would carry on for the four little girls whose dreams were cut short in an Alabama church. Some would refer to the reality of powerful black leaders in the 21st century as privilege while others would call it a dream fulfilled.
Post-Obama, Does Class Trump Race?
Ask millionaire Buddy Fletcher who I believe has been discriminated against in his bid to purchase an apartment in the famed Dakota co-op building, if we are living in a post-racial society. For people of color, economic advancement is no guarantee of equal treatment in hiring, housing or access. Today's civil rights leaders have a special concern for those forgotten New Yorkers - people who have been involved in the criminal court system seeking to reunite and provide for their families, young adults in their early 20s who have never held a legitimate paying job, young parents who have a hard time advocating in a school system that they feel failed them first. Today's leaders recognize they are a product of the civil rights movement and understand that with great privilege comes great responsibility.
Creating a Leadership Pipeline
Transitions are difficult in the best of circumstances. We live in truly the best and worst of times for African-Americans. Our elders worked, struggled and died for the opportunities that we currently enjoy. It is understandable that our elders would have some level of trepidation about the future. Sometimes I hear youth using words to address each other that would have brought tears to my young eyes if they were uttered by another race. But the torch must be passed - always appreciating those who brought us thus far, ensuring the stories and struggles are never forgotten. None of these current leaders traveled to their respective positions on the Underground Railroad, but each has heard Harriet's drums. It is our generation's time to mark our steps by her steady drum beat for justice.
Arva R. Rice is the president and CEO of the New York Urban League