By William P. Muhammad
By now, it should be abundantly clear to most Black Americans that a Black president is not necessarily the end-all-be-all regarding solutions to our unique issues and concerns. With the likelihood of a Black agenda receiving priority in Washington virtually nil, over the long term the “Do-for-self” work ethic offers more to us than does waiting for the good will of government.
With an economy in shambles, two on-going wars and a vocal conservative opposition, President Obama’s political obligations and “walking of the tightrope” limit his ability to adequately address the specific needs of Black people. From Black unemployment numbers, to incarceration rates or government funding of HBCUs, for political reasons the Obama administration has been careful not to appear as being too much in favor of one group over another.
Although Mr. Obama has appointed people of color to important cabinet posts and other high ranking government positions, this will have little immediate impact upon the masses of our people. As “power concedes nothing without a demand,” a petition will not be taken seriously without a consistent and united front from among the petitioners. Where there is division among constituents, there is political weakness and as a consequence there is little or no progressive action. With the onus therefore resting upon us, an examination of past efforts will not only aid in continuing our social and political advancements, but through analysis and correction we may also develop the infrastructure necessary to protect the interests of our progeny.
Marching and Mobilizing: An historical analysis
In the summer of 1941, civil rights activist and organizer A. Philip Randolph demanded that President Franklin D. Roosevelt end discriminatory hiring practices within the defense industry. With the threat of a massive march on Washington D.C., the President signed Executive Order 8802: “Reaffirming Policy Of Full Participation In The Defense Program By All Persons, Regardless Of Race, Creed, Color, Or National Origin, And Directing Certain Action In Furtherance Of Said Policy.” Although the march was called off to the disappointment of those wishing to participate, Mr. Randolph succeeded in leveraging a movement to win federal concessions and to institute what became known as The Fair Employment Act.
By 1963, initially in the name of public accommodations, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. succeeded in planning and executing his much lauded march on Washington. Through a moral appeal to America and the world and through the building of the Civil Rights movement, his efforts helped to bring forth two major pieces of legislation: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and The Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In both cases, Randolph and King sought redress by petitioning government and for the most part they succeeded. In bringing attention to the plight of Black people, they fostered social and political change through the mobilization of their followers. However, beyond social equality and political inclusion, the long-term economic interests of Black people were not part of their initial agendas. With the advent of World War II, Mr. Randolph’s efforts were directed toward the desegregation of the armed forces, and in 1968 Dr. King was assassinated before he could lead a second Washington march on behalf of the poor.
Black Americans have spent much blood and treasure in the quest for human and civil rights, and rightfully so, but missing was the call to reconciliation and responsibility among ourselves as Black people. While past marches and movements issued moral demands upon the government and the dominant white society, few mobilizations called for accountability among us as a people.
The 1995 Million Man March on Washington, urged Black men to look inward and to begin the process of atonement in our families and communities. A march addressing both the spiritual and psychological dimensions of our condition, America and the world witnessed another side of the Black man that for years had been hidden beneath negative propaganda and media stereotypes. The unity of Black people, as an important component to the establishment of our long term interests was highlighted as was a demand that we overcome the obstacles that have prevented us from coming together.
Today, our greatest impediment appears to be what many have colloquially termed “the Willie Lynch Syndrome.” Perhaps an explanation for the “crabs in a bucket” mentality that has undermined the speed and nature of our progress, the establishment of operational unity can only emerge when we find and respect the common denominator that binds us. As time continues to “dictate the agenda,” the necessity of our coming together as a people cannot be denied. Until we have awakened to the cause that is greater than us all - the future of our children - we can only expect high hopes amid stagnation and wishful thinking.