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LEON: From Aggressive Peaceful Activism to Tranquilizing Gradualism

Dr. Wilmer J. Leon | 9/4/2013, 3 p.m.

“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” — Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Aug. 28, 1963

During the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom there was a lot of discussion about the “then” vs. “now.”

Has the “Dream” been realized? Are we in a post-racial America? How did the 50th anniversary March compare to the first?

The answer to the first question is an emphatic “no.”

As I have written and lectured on a number of occasions, to refer to Dr. King’s message as a dream misses the point of the speech. Over the years Dr. King’s revolutionary message has been hijacked, compromised and relegated to being that of just a dreamer, not the lucid and radical ideas of a man seeking solutions to how a people can overcome oppression and racism.

To cast King in the light of a dreamer allows people to be convinced that substantive change resulting from clear vision and direct action is not necessary.

Are we in a post-racial America? No, and that’s a ridiculous question.

I have written to this point as well. America cannot be close to being post racial when a candidate for president has to run a de-racialized campaign in order to make the masses comfortable with the obvious aesthetic. This is not a post-racial America when the unemployment rate in the African American community is more than double the national average and the wealth accumulation of the average European American family is 20 times that of the average African American family.

How did the 50th anniversary March compare to the first?

Comparisons are natural due to the fact that the two marches were convened to address many of the same issues. The fact that 50 years later, speakers still addressed issues such as unemployment, jobs, civil liberties, education, health care, support for social programs and protection against police brutality made for easy yet unfortunate comparisons. It is understandable that people will try to make qualitative and quantitative assessments between similar events.

While there might be some obvious and natural similarities between the two marches they are also quite different. Their political contexts are very different.

Leading up to the 1963 March, civil rights organizations such as CORE, SNCC, SCLC and the NAACP were engaged in non-violent direct action. There was a three pronged strategy to bring pressure upon the executive branch and other branches of government to recognize and protect the civil rights of Negros of the day. This pressure was being applied in the streets (sit-ins, boycotts, and marches), the courts (Brown v. Board of Education, etc.) and the legislature (civil rights laws, voting, and public accommodations). It was the struggle of a people to be included into the social, economic and legal mainstream of America.