I recently listened to an interview with Harry Belafonte where he reflected on his friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr. Belafonte, who turned 91 last month, shared how he had met King at a civil rights protest when they were both in their early 20’s. Together, both men made history confronting the inequalities that existed in the South in the 1960s and, along with others, led a movement that profoundly influenced my generation.
1968 saw tremendous conflict across the U.S. After King was assassinated in April, riots broke out in Chicago, Detroit and other major cities. Fear ran deep that Black Americans would seek revenge and White Americans would be their target. Church leaders and Civil Rights leaders came together reminding us all that even in our shared grief over the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., the work of peaceful protest remained the best path forward.
Two months later, on June 6, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Kennedy had decided to run for President after Lyndon Johnson told America he would not seek another term. Kennedy was intimately involved with the Civil Rights Movement and had been seen as one of the few political leaders who could bring Americans together and begin to heal the wound that King’s death had left.
More sadness and disillusion came at the Democratic National Convention held in Chicago in August. Protesters against the Vietnam War were met with the National Guard. Delegates were forced to make their way through police lines. Eventually, Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey as their candidate. He had a stellar record of activism and social justice, and had been instrumental in getting the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed in the Senate. He lost to Richard Nixon.
This one turbulent year brought many Americans out of their complacency and left others wondering whether the United States was on the verge of another civil war. Gains were made in education, housing, and wages for many who experienced systemic racism. While there was grief, there was also a commitment to keep the flame alive and insure that the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. continued to be done. Conservative Americans cried out for “Law and Order” to be restored, and expected Richard Nixon to implement strict measures to bring the protesters in line.
In the 50 years that have passed, the social justice movements and ideals that inspired people to change have become historic relics rather than functional principles. And the change that had been hoped for, promised, and lives given in sacrifice for does not seem to have manifested.
As I listened to that interview with Harry Belafonte, I remembered my own enthusiastic embrace of the social justice movements and how committed I felt at the time to insuring equality and opportunity. I remember my patriotism being awakened as I joined people in the streets calling their elected representatives to task for keeping a war going. I marched with church members in protest of redlining. I volunteered with inner city youth in an attempt to bridge the racial divide. I voted in every election and assisted others to exercise their right to vote.
But today, as I reflect on what has transpired since 1968, I find myself wondering why that wasn’t sufficient? Why haven’t we succeeded in learning to love each other? Why did we lose the war on drugs, poverty, and fail to bring the promise of America to all Americans?
Harry Belafonte pulls no punches when he points out that, “We [African Americans] have been lynched. We have been murdered. And if you look around, never before in my 91 years of history as an American have I ever seen the nation more racially divisive that it is at this very moment, including the days of the Klu Klux Klan and the segregation laws of the South.”
When I take myself to task, I realize that I became an armchair liberal who donated to causes I thought were addressing the issues instead of marching and holding people in power accountable. Based on results, this passive approach has not succeeded in shifting the power structure from exclusive control by the few to an inclusive model.
It was not until the last election that Americans once again took to the streets in protest in large numbers. Since January 2017, energetic and coordinated protests have re-emerged, addressing many of the same themes that were present in 1968; gender inequity, inequality in work and pay, overt segregation, and systemic imprisonment and slaughter of Black men.
Men and women of all ages are once again making their voices heard in support of change. We are utilizing strategies that 50 years ago moved our government to rewrite laws and fund programs to bring opportunity and level the playing field. In addition, the voices of young people are calling their elders to action demanding that we protect them and keep them safe in our schools.
Perhaps this is cyclical. Perhaps there really is a continuum and we are at one end and beginning the return to the middle. If such theory holds true, this return journey will see some gains made, some wrongs righted, and new ideas implemented to address long-standing inequities. As Belafonte says in the closing moments of the interview, “The baton has been passed.”