As the nation commemorates MLK Day, there is a strong temptation to get stuck in a kind of nostalgia for the good old days of a simpler civil rights movement; a movement without angry Black people, afros and shattered glass. And in that nostalgia, sweep under the rug that, although the civil rights movement helped all people live better lives, it was unabashedly a movement borne out of Black organizing traditions to improve the lives of Black people.
Somehow, there is this idea that supporting Black organizing means subtracting support for other movements. Yet, progressive Black infrastructure (networks of high capacity, Black-led, member-based institutions) is critical to developing a majority movement for justice. At the national level, issues such as healthcare reform, immigration rights, marriage equality and restorative justice have suffered from the lack of organized Black support. At the local level, the decrease in support for Black organizing has meant a marked decrease in consistent school site advocacy in African American communities. Organizing around health care access and access to public hospitals has also suffered from the lack of an engaged African American base.
The roots of the problem go back centuries. However, more recent factors such as the decrease in public sector supports for community organizing and action in the late 1970s (i.e., community action programs, Head Start parent organizing and participation funds, faith-based “action” funding, etc.) as result of a federal budget crisis was caused primarily by the significant decrease in the corporate tax rate. These programs were a significant part of the organizing infrastructure in Black communities. Although philanthropy tried to meet some of the gaps caused by public funding cuts, by 1981, the number of African American institutions engaged in organizing had dwindled significantly.
Public funding and non-profit incorporation requirements began to actively restrict political activity. As a result, foundations and individual donors became the primary sources of financial support for progressive advocacy. Monies previously invested in African American organizing were largely redirected toward efforts to build broad-based coalitions to combat Reagan era funding cuts, without a strategy for expanding grassroots organizing in communities most affected. The resulting devastation of Black organizing infrastructure was exacerbated by the exodus of African American organizing talent to institutions with the capacity to support organizing and organizers. Perhaps even worse, shrinking Black infrastructure gave rise to a new class of “penetrator” leadership; those who had most deeply penetrated white institutions – like the President, Colin Powell, Black executives of large corporations – people with little accountability to Black people who still get to speak on their behalf.
Could Dr. King get a job organizing Black folk if he were around today?
There’s a lot of talk about today’s “new” civil rights movement. It’s supposed to be bigger, more diverse and less “dreamy” than its predecessor. Don’t get me wrong. We need to learn from past mistakes, take into account new realities and build broad based alliances that help us hold this huge project of liberation. Yet, I can’t seem to shake the feeling that much of this talk ignores the radical roots and promise of the “old” civil rights movement; and why some people were killed for their participation in it. Black power is still scary. Poor people building power is still scary. And most of the agenda of Dr. King and his contemporaries is so scary that these ideals have been abandoned – even thwarted – by the very people and institutions that claim to love him and his “dream.”
As you celebrate that historic day on the national lawn 50 years ago, listen carefully to the speeches and look hard at the leadership that made the day possible. Black lives matter. Black organizing matters and it is an important part of the story of how we all get free.