By Charles Hallman
The 1964 Civil Rights Act became law 50 years ago, and the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs this year is hosting a series of events to commemorate the historic legislation. Last week’s panel discussion at Cowles Auditorium with local civil rights activists was the beginning.
Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice Chair Dr. Samuel Myers characterized the January 23 event, cosponsored by the center and the African American Leadership Forum, as “a critical discourse and discussion about how far have we come and where we need to go.”
University of St. Thomas Law Professor Nekima Levy-Pounds, the event’s keynote speaker, told the audience of around 40 people that Dr. King’s legacy too often is romanticized, especially his 1963 I Have A Dream speech. “That speech was amazing — according to many people, it is the greatest speech that’s ever been made in American history,” she said.
“It’s fine that we celebrate that speech. It’s fine that we celebrate all of the gains that were made from the Civil Rights Movement. But at the same time, we cannot forget about the struggle that people went through in order to get the gains that they received.”
There were other people besides Dr. King who contributed to those gains and fought for significant changes in this country during that same time, especially young Black people, continued Levy-Pounds. “Young people today [are] being manipulated and lulled to sleep…thinking that you don’t have a role to play in changing things that are happening in our society,” she pointed out. “Dr. King’s example proved us wrong. He showed that any person who makes a decision that they are tired of facing injustice, oppression, inequality, inequity, racism and hatred can play a role in tearing down those symptoms.
“So I ask — what are we doing in 2014 to fulfill Dr. King’s vision? Those are the questions he would want us to answer,” surmised the professor and director of the Community Justice Project at St. Thomas. “Are we taking a
stand when we see oppression and inequality, or can we be counted out as the silent majority?”
The five panel members — which included Julia Freeman of the Organizing Apprenticeship Project, Empower MSP’s Mark Robinson, U of M junior political science student Kenneth Eban of Students for Education Reform-Minnesota, Kandace Montgomery of TakeAction Minnesota and Anthony Newby of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change — each spoke on Dr. King’s “Dream” as well.
“There are those who ask what happened to the Civil Rights Movement,” stated Robinson. “The answer is we can not think of it in the past tense or of something that is completed. It is still here and it is still relevant. We have so much work to do.
“This is not the America Dr. King dreamed of. This is not the society we should hold up as a model to follow. No matter the media spin, we do not live in a post-racial society,” Robinson declared. “The occupants in the White House do not mean that we have arrived or that we can forget the systemic and structural forces that still hold people back.”
“Young people really need to be driving this movement [for change],” said Montgomery. “If we are not at the front of this movement, then the movement won’t be sustainable or be able to continue.” She added that “Minnesota is not a nice place to live” for Blacks and other people of color, who often must deal with “the continuous invalidation”…Oppression makes you feel crazy when you are having oppressive situations because of the invalidation of your reality.”
“We should respect different cultures and learn to really and truly appreciate those cultures and figure out a way and a system to accept those cultures and really profit from those cultures,” added Eban. “The educational system that we have set up right now just does not appreciate those cultures. It’s all about assimilation, and we all need to assimilate to one culture and one standard to get to the University of Minnesota [or] St. Thomas…to get to every college in the country. We have to think about how can we appreciate every single culture.”
Newby stated, “I don’t have the answer, but I have an answer. People are scared, I get scared. What makes it manageable for me is knowing that I am organizing [something] that’s bigger than myself, and a movement bigger than myself.”
“We know how to get the job done, but are we ever asked?” Freeman queried. “Are we ever at the table? We as people of color are not seen as an asset. Real solutions happen when people are really at the table with those shared learning opportunities across cultural [boundaries] and across communities with those decision makers.”
America still has an “unreconciled racial history,” said Levy-Pounds, adding that Dr. King’s focus on economic inequalities and economic justice in his later years “is when he really became dangerous. His writings and his focus on the Poor People’s Campaign on Washington were really detrimental to the power structure that allows oppression to continue. And we know that power structure has been in place before our government was formed.
“Back in 1968 when Dr. King launched the Poor People’s Campaign, he asked for a guaranteed income for every American citizen,” she recalled. “He also asked for housing for every American citizen, and he said at the time, ‘If Washington will not respond and if the politicians won’t respond, we are going to stay there until they respond.’ That’s when he became dangerous, and just a few months after he made that statement, he was assassinated.
“Dr. King would want us to celebrate his legacy not just by listening to what he said, but doing what he did,” concluded Levy-Pounds. “That is the charge for us in 2014. We cannot continue to be silent and complacent as injustice goes on.”