All of the 50th anniversary acknowledgment and celebration is incredibly important to do, and was done in a way fitting for the moment and the man (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), and no doubt inspiring too, but we are potentially missing one powerful message that I believe would actually distress Dr. King today. If the civil rights movement efforts that marked the period between 1955-1968, was and remains today as arguably the single greatest transformational achievement of and for Black Americans, in America, then we should be both proud and very sad.
Proud for all of the obvious reasons that the world is now reasonably well aware of, and that the 50th anniversary activities underscored. Proud also, because the civil rights achievements were not about Black America, but in fact changed all of America. Just look at the reality of President Barack Obama, speaking from the same place that Dr. King once spoke a mere 50 years ago, and you cannot help but be proud of 'where we have come.'
I actually consider the civil rights movement to represent the third legitimate American revolution in this country's history, following America's freedom from Britain, and of course the Civil War.
The civil rights movement freed America's consciousness, allowing us to have a legitimate rebirth of values here at home, and profound and inspiring moral authority around the world. Moral authority that still benefits America's foreign policy to this day.
But this whole discussion is also very sad, because this also means that arguably the greatest period in the African-American experience in America, was about shutting down and turning back 100 years of bad things and horrible public policy. It was about taking down backwards 'whites only' signs, and allowing the Black community to enjoy the same basis rights of access as were enjoyed by most everyone else.
It was about reversing a 100 year legacy of 'black codes,' first allowed to fester and grow under then President Andrew Johnson (who took office after President Lincoln was killed), and which 50 years later morphed into Jim Crow Laws in the southern states. Local and state laws that, to be blunt, stood in direct and absolute conflict with federal law.
Our greatest achievement, as a people, to date, was about turning back 'bad stuff.'
It was not about growing an economy for Black and Brown folks, and by extension helping America too. Nor was it about producing jobs, or creating a generation of homeowners (though there was federal housing legislation in the later years of the movement), or putting young people on a solid career path, which connected their newly acquired educational rights, with opportunities for mainstream economic attainment.
It was not a prosperity agenda, it was an anti-oppression agenda.
At the end of the day, that means that we leaned our greatest minds (Ph.D's, lawyers, social scientists, activist, academics, government leaders, community leaders, even business leaders) into a necessary national civil rights effort aimed at stopping bad things, not creating good ones. Bad things, mind you, that had to be stopped, so I am not complaining. I am though making the case that one of the greatest minds the world has ever seen -- Dr. King -- was killed in a battle to stop that which should have never been in the first place.
Dr. King never got to even begin in substance, the third dimension of his civil rights movement work, the Poor People's Campaign, which was in turn about eradicating poverty for all races of people, and not simply Black people. But his life was cut short before he even organized the first march in Washington, D.C. to confront the evils of poverty in America, or to discuss prosperity for all.
The result today, 50 years later, is that far too much of Black America's intellectual firepower, political capital, and business acumen and resources are aimed (still) at 'fighting oppression,' vs. creating a true prosperity agenda that might actually get Black America (and by extension all minority groups and women) out of the mess we increasingly find ourselves in. In short, the new racism is poverty, as I noted in a past Huffington Post post.
Let's just take the $1 billion stadium development project recently announced here in Atlanta, Georgia. Let me make it clear that I am not criticizing the stadium project, my friend the mayor, backers, leaders, or anyone else. I am criticizing us. Black America, and our collective leadership priorities.
While Black leadership is understandably 'calling out' individual cases of racial and other oppression, here and around the country -- and marching at the drop of a hat when a Black citizen is beaten or abused by law enforcement or anyone else, in the dark cloak of individual injustice -- the entire Black community is being simply clocked, in the plain sight of day.
A business associate called to tell me recently that a friend of his (non-minority) recently 'acquired' 60 plus residential and commercial properties, in the backdrop of the $1 billion stadium development, here in Atlanta --- and for a mere $15,000. How did he do it? He simply purchased defaulted property tax judgements, and just like that, he claimed ownership over invaluable inner-city properties, worth millions in a very short period of time.
But where are we in this discussion? Missing in action, unfortunately.
Or take the area near where I grew up, in South Central Los Angeles, where I recently drove through at 10pm in the evening, and saw young white couples jogging down the street --- IN SOUTH CENTRAL AT 10PM IN THE EVENING!
Or around the famed King Center, in inner-city Atlanta, Georgia, home of the famed Dr. King, SCLC and the civil rights movement. There you see (regularly) young white couples riding bikes up and down the Auburn Avenue.
In neither of these cases were these young white couples acting and moving quickly because they were running away from someone. They were actually enjoying their community. THEIR community. A community that they had now discovered value in, and decided to move into, and to call their new home. Good for them.
I am not upset at the white couples who did this, and in some ways I celebrate it. This was Dr. King's dream too (one world, and one community).
I am upset with us -- because while too many of us are at the Mall and the Club, and shopping for things we neither need, nor can afford, in mainstream neighborhoods we don't live in, folks are walking right into our neighborhoods and taking ownership of incredible asset values -- asset values which should rightly be our own opportunity.
But because of massive levels of financial illiteracy (possibly the next civil rights issue we have to battle going forward in our communities), and a mixed up stream of multi-generational priorities for the Black community, we are missing the boat almost completely.
I was honored to attend and participate in the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's I HAVE A DREAM speech, both speaking on a youth program with Dr. Bernice A. King (daughter of Dr. King), Congressman John Lewis, Doris Crenshaw, Ambassador Andrew Young (Dr. King's chief lieutenant and chief strategist in the movement) on August 27th, 2013, and observing three U.S. President's and others as they joined in with the King family to pay tribute to this great man, on August 28th, 2013. And I was equally honored to be amongst the countless millions that watched my friend and HOPE board member, Dr. Bernice A. King, CEO of the King Center, as she electrified the crowd, speaking amongst the group of former and current U.S. Heads of State at the end of the program.
I was even encouraged that my friend Benjamin Jealous, head of the NAACP, spoke of the unfinished work of Dr. King's Poor People's Campaign and what we need to do next, and when Dr. Bernice King spoke about the work in the global context of what's going on in Egypt and other parts of the world. But sadly, Ben has recently announced he is leaving the NAACP, and my friend Bernice King is all too often almost the sole voice calling for a movement beyond the profiling agenda of oneself, and also talking about the importance of empowering our people. We need a new agenda, and we need one now.
And don't get me started on the high-school dropout rates of black and brown youth in these same communities I speak about, Or more so, the high school dropout rates for young black men in these same communities. Remember that it was young people, in middle school and high school, that turned the tide of the civil rights movement of 50 years ago. Back then, you went to school to find our young people, now if you go to our schools, our young people are increasingly hard to find.
Winning battles, and losing wars. Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The ship is sinking, and we are picking drapes on the upper deck. We need a new agenda, and we need one now. I call it the silver rights movement, but you can call it whatever you like. We just need to move.
Let's celebrate the 50 years that have past, but let's also develop a new Marshall Plan (renewal of community, and ourselves) for the 50 years to come.
As my friend and mentor Dr. Cecil "Chip" Murray, former pastor of First A.M.E. Church in South Central Los Angeles would say, "the best way to start living your dream, is to start by waking up." Let's wake up Black America. Let's wake up. No one is going to save us, but us.
John Hope Bryant is an entrepreneur, author, advisor, and one of the nation's most recognized empowerment leader. He is the founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE and Bryant Group Companies, The Inc. Magazine/CEO READ bestselling business author of LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass), the only African-American bestselling business author in America, and is chairman of the Subcommittee for the Under-Served and Community Empowerment for the U.S. President's Advisory Council on Financial Capability, for President Barack Obama. Mr. Bryant is the co-founder of the Gallup-HOPE Index, the only national research poll on youth financial dignity and youth economic energy in the U.S.