Last spring immigration rights groups loudly demanded that civil right groups take part in immigration rights marches and endorse immigration reform bills in Congress. They branded the immigration battle the new civil rights movement, and insisted that if Martin Luther King, Jr. were alive he would have backed up their claim. It's risky to say what King would have done on that score. Yet it's almost certain that given King's passionate support of the mostly Latino led and targeted farm workers movement in California, and his glowing praise of farm worker leader Cesar Chavez, he would have regarded the immigration reform fight as a bonafide civil rights battle.
And that would get him in hot water today with many blacks and some civil rights groups who take great offense at comparing the immigration reform struggle to the 1960s civil rights movement. That's just one glaring sign of how things have changed in the nearly four decades since King's murder, and on the anniversary of the King national holiday celebration.
In the 1960s, things were much simpler for civil rights leaders. Their fight was against bigoted sheriffs and mobs. Civil rights leaders firmly staked out the moral high ground for the modern day civil rights movement. It was classic good versus evil. The gory news scenes of baton welding racist Southern sheriffs, firehoses, and police dogs, and Klan violence unleashed against peaceful black protesters sickened many white Americans. All, except the most rabid racists, considered racial segregation as immoral and indefensible, and the civil rights leaders were hailed as martyrs and American heroes in the fight for justice.
Blacks had the sympathy and goodwill of millions of whites, politicians, and business leaders, and even a president that shouted "We Shall Overcome," the slogan of the civil rights movement. But those days are long gone. Instead civil rights leaders must confront the indifference, even outright hostility, of many white and non-white Americans to affirmative action, increased spending on social programs, and civil rights marches. They confront a Bush administration that the overwhelming majority of blacks regard as an inherent enemy of civil rights. Civil rights leaders must maintain civility and even a working modus vivendi with Bush to have even the faintest hope of getting more funds and programs for everything from Katrina reconstruction to job and education programs.
That points to another challenge that King had only begun to wrestle with in his last days. That's the plight of the legions of urban black poor. As America unraveled in the 1960s in the anarchy of urban riots, campus takeovers, and anti-war street battles, the civil rights movement and its leaders fell apart, too. Many of them fell victim to their own success and failure. When they broke down the racially restricted doors of corporations, government agencies, and universities, middle class blacks, not the poor, rushed headlong through them.
Four decades later, there are now two black Americas. The fat, rich, and comfortable black America of Oprah Winfrey, Robert Johnson, Bill Cosby, Condoleezza Rice, Denzel Washington and the legions of millionaire black athletes and entertainers, businesspersons and professionals. They have grabbed a big slice of America's pie.
The black America of the poor is fragmented and politically rudderless. Lacking competitive technical skills and professional training, and shunned by many middle-class black leaders, they have been shoved even further to the outer margins of American society. The chronic problems of gang, and drug violence, family breakdown, police abuse, the soaring incarceration rate of young black males, the mounting devastation of HIV and AIDS disease in black communities, abysmally failing inner city public schools have made things even worse for them. The mostly middle-class civil rights leaders at times have seemed clueless on how to get a handle on those problems.
The political rise of, and soaring influence of black conservatives, the black evangelicals, and the furious internal fights among blacks over gay marriage, gay rights, and abortion have tormented, perplexed, and forced civil rights leaders, who are mostly liberal Democrats to confront their own gender and political biases. They have tried to strike a halting, tenuous balance between their liberalism and the social conservatism of many blacks.
The endorsement of an anti-gay march by one of King's daughters a couple of years ago was another instance of a troubling issue that King didn't have to deal with. She evoked her father's name during the march, and was gently rebuked by Coretta Scott King. Though Coretta almost certainly spoke for King in championing gay rights, he still would have been in a bind over how to deal with a family disagreement on whether gay rights is a legitimate civil rights issue or not.
Civil rights leaders will continue to walk a tight rope between the competing and sometimes contradictory needs of black conservatives, gay rights backers, and immigration reform advocates, while still trying to be a voice for the black poor.
These are weighty challenges that would perplex and frustrate King if he were alive. It was so much easier when the challenge was water hoses, police dogs and Bull Connor.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social issues commentator, and the author of The Emerging Black GOP Majority (Middle Passage Press, September 2006).