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January 12, 2006

Following the King

Martin Luther King Jr. would have been 77 on Sunday, and as the nation takes the opportunity to celebrate one of history’s greatest activists, a few are asking about where the next King may be. Jesse Jackson is as ubiquitous nationally as Louis Coleman is here in Louisville; indeed, their overexposure vividly begs the issue of the future of African-American activism.

Last Sunday a panel of Louisville’s black leaders tackled this question in a program sponsored by the University of Louisville at the Yearlings Club. Titled “Black Activism, Past, Present and Future,” the discussion roamed the American racial landscape, as the participants talked not only about activism, but about the issues that beg for reformist activity.

Dr. J. Blaine Hudson, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at U of L, said that many people “... tend to think of activism only in the context of protest,” adding that perhaps it would be better to think of activism as simply being involved in solving problems facing African Americans and the society at large. As he put it, “We have only solved problems when African Americans became active, and we always found allies in white America.” In making the case as to the necessity of activism, Hudson went on to quote Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”

Several of the panelists, including local activists Rhonda Mathis and the legendary Anne Braden, said that while it is certainly appropriate to honor the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr., it is wrong to conclude that he changed American’s attitudes about civil rights by himself. “If (King) had been the only one standing by the Washington Monument in 1963, we wouldn’t have made the progress we’ve made,” said Raoul Cunningham, president of Louisville’s NAACP chapter. That point — the need to organize many citizens to bolster the efforts of the leaders — was underscored by the other panelists. “A few people standing in front of the JCPS (Jefferson County Public Schools) building once a week won’t accomplish anything,” one said, “but a hundred people out there every day will get things changed quickly.”

As the discussion turned to the absence of young civil rights leaders, panelists and audience searched for an explanation. All agreed that one of the reasons is that blacks don’t face overt discrimination every day, and they have slipped into a comfort zone.

Dr. Ricky Jones, chair of the department of Pan-African Studies at U of L and a LEO columnist, looked to history for an explanation. “The civil rights movement has always had freedom riders and free riders,” Jones said, meaning that many African Americans had benefited from the sacrifices of others. The “free riders” achieved success and moved into the middle class, and they became the role models for many young blacks rather than the activist leaders.

Jones also suggested that one of the reasons many African Americans have not become activists is that, “We have been colonized in the political system. Instead of looking to political scientists (for guidance as to how to organize for change), many African Americans listen to preachers. If I was sending a team into a basketball game, I would listen to Michael Jordan, not a clergyman,” Jones said.

During the discussion, a couple other possible explanations occurred to me. First, most of the problems facing African Americans today are economic. As the disparity of wealth and power between rich people and average citizens grows, the solutions to society’s problems appear to be less and less approachable through individual action. For example, if people are upset about gas prices, it may appear to be a hopeless task to bring pressure on a global corporation like Exxon-Mobil. Only widespread boycotts or expensive class actions can move an entity that large. Not many situations can be attacked by the simple act of taking a seat on a segregated bus, as Rosa Parks did. Said more simply, today’s problems often seem too large and complex to be within any individual’s power to change.

Another strangely twisted factor, it seems to me, could be the media. For one week last fall, the world got a revealing look at the abject poverty of minority citizens in New Orleans. Only a few months later the poor people victimized by Hurricane Katrina are largely forgotten. It seems that media coverage of these problems may create the illusion of concern, disarming potential activism and doing nothing to activate solutions.

But ultimately, no one has better described activism than anthropologist Margaret Mead, who said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

(Note: On Feb. 12, U of L will sponsor a program on African-American History Month at the Yearlings Club, 4309 W. Broadway.)

Contact the writer at jyarmuth@aol.com