By Bakari Kitwana and Hakim Hasan
The overwhelming social transformation rendered in the 1950s and 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement is a milestone in American history of such magnitude that it assumes a mythological quality, almost willing us to define the future in its image. But our own post-civil rights movement era requires us to reframe what “civil rights” actually means. Changes in the way many Americans have come to think of the role of government, the overwhelming influence of corporate media, the disproportionate influence of America’s super rich, and today’s activists’ focus on human rights and social justice rather than simply civil rights make the question of civil rights leaders almost passé. Old standards of measures of civil rights success—mass movements and legislation for example—no longer apply.
Given the new reality the more accurate question is this: What individuals and organizations were essential in helping move the needle on the most important civil rights issues of this, the 21st century?
15. Majora Carter is the 2005 MacArthur genius who in 2001 started Sustainable South Bronx, an organization dedicated to environmentalism and the creation of Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training, a highly successful green jobs training and placement program. In 2008 she formed the Majora Carter Group [Facebook Page], LLC and serves as its president. In her current capacity, aside from being a highly sought speaker, she now advises companies, cities, and universities on environmental and business issues.
14. Van Jones [Facebook Page]—who cut his teeth as a grassroots activist using hip-hop as a tool to engage youth in social change around issues like police brutality, education, and incarceration via his organization, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights—turned his attention to green jobs as a way of alleviating dual issues of America’s environmental neglect and chronic joblessness in urban America and beyond. In 2008 he authored The Green Collar Economy. As White House Advisor on green jobs, he brought to America a plan for job creation at a time when business and political leaders have been otherwise stumped on how to do so. Within months of his appointment, conservative attacks led to his resignation and his return to the front lines of grassroots green jobs activism.
13. George Soros and Bill & Melinda Gates. Bill and Melinda Gates [Facebook Page] have raised the clarion call about disparities in health policy and provisions in developing countries. Likewise, George Soros [Facebook Page], founder of the Open Society Foundations, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy gave $332 million to his Open Society Institute in 2010, an organization that promotes education and democracy initiatives around the world.
12. Rosa Clemente. Hip-Hop political action groups have served as a catalyst of youth political involvement in electoral politics culminating in expanding the 18-29 youth vote from 40 percent participation in 2000 to 52 percent in 2008. By 2008, when Cynthia McKinney became the Green Party’s presidential candidate, such was the influence of hip-hop organizing that McKinney chose hip-hop activist Rosa Clemente [Facebook Page] as her running mate. Clemente emerged in 2003 among a number of young activists who took the model of local hip-hop political activism to the national level and made political participation, as well as good old fashion grassroots activism, made sexy for a new generation. Organizations like The League of Young Voters, Hip-Hop Congress, the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and The National Hip-Hop Political Convention were a catalyst for youth around the country. In June 2004, over 4000 young people from 30 states attend The National Hip-Hop Political Convention (which Clemente co-founded) in Newark, New Jersey, to create and endorse a political agenda for the hip-hop generation. Hip-Hop Caucus, headed by Reverend Lennox Yearwood, would follow with a grassroots appeal to youth poor and working class youth in 2008.
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11. Black Public Intellectuals. Public intellectualism has been seen as a gift and a curse. They are the talking heads that weigh in as experts reading the tea leaves of Black America for national media. From Ivy League-branded Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Michael Eric Dyson to activist-authors Alice Walker and many others in between, such as Boyce Watkins, Melissa Harris-Perry, and Tricia Rose, these are the voices of sanity that provide a counter-balance to the near white-out of Black hosts on network and cable news shows. They may not always consult us, but given the dearth of Black-controlled television media outlets, more often than not they provide voice to human rights and social justice issues of our time.
10. James Rucker. ColorofChange.com is a web-based advocacy group that James Rucker co-founded with Van Jones in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Rucker had previously held several positions with the grassroots advocacy group MoveOn.org. COC has used social networking to address important issues from the Jena Six to lobbying companies not to advertise on Glenn Beck’s Fox News show because of his unsubstantiated remarks that President Obama “hates whites.”
9. Farhana Khera, founder of Muslim Advocates. Muslim Advocates came into existence after 9-11 and the now infamous Patriot Act, which instantaneously curtailed many of the freedoms we take for granted. Focused on religious and racial profiling, the work of Muslim Advocates in many ways signals the expansion of the traditional civil rights movement – the broadening of issues and responses to them beyond the black/white divide. Muslim Advocates and the NAACP recently joined forces and sent a letter to Eric Holder, the Attorney General, requesting a full investigation of a FBI raid that resulted in the shooting death of Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah in Michigan. Like Muslim Advocates, The ACLU has been at the forefront of fighting these issues. Over the decade, the ACLU has issued reports that document this work like last year’s “Sanctioned: Racial Profiling Since 9/11.” The ACLU was also part of a coalition that filed a class action suit that challenged SB 1070, Arizona’s notorious racial profiling law in 2010.
8. Trail of Dreams. In Jan 2010 four undocumented former students at Miami Dade University (Gaby Pacheco, Juan Rodriguez, Felipe Matos and Carlos Roa), led a 1500 mile march entitled “Trail of Dreams” from Miami to DC, inspiring similar students across the country. Immigration reform is still a major legislation issue in the U.S. that impacts the lives of approximately 11 million illegal immigrants in the nation. The Dream Act, a legislative proposal that has been a political football since 2001, would grant permanent citizenship rights to eligible undocumented students. On March 21, 2010, thousands of immigrants and their allies marched in Washington, D.C. in a show of solidarity to raise awareness about the plight of illegal immigrants as part of the Dream activist movement. Similar demonstrations were held in cities throughout the nation.
7. Jimmy Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, and over the years has increasingly questioned America’s role as a superpower and foreign policy initiatives. His frank talk about the critical issue of Israel as it relates to the Palestinian question is exemplified in his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Carter has also been at the forefront of the need for election oversight in any democracy, including the U.S. and beyond, via his Atlanta-based The Carter Center.
6. Randall Robinson is the founder of TransAfrica Forum. He has been one of the singular voices and critiques of American foreign policy at the height of apartheid in South Africa, the overthrow of Jean Bertrand-Aristide in Haiti, and the economic policies that thwarted the growth of economies in the Caribbean. Robinson’s 2001 book The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks brought the question of reparations to African Americans for slavery to the fore of national discussion.
5. Cynthia McKinney is a former six-term member of Congress from Georgia. She was the 2008 presidential candidate for the Green Party. McKinney garnered national attention as a legislator for her outspoken views on the war in Iraq, 9/11, military appropriations and the Bush administration’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina, which left thousands of people homeless. Likewise, as legislators more and more seem focused on issues beyond traditional civil rights concerns, Maxine Waters, (who voted against the Iraq War Resolution), former Senator Russ Feingold (the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act). John Conyers (who recently proposed legislation against religious intolerance against Muslims) and Ohio’s Dennis Kucinich and former Representative from Florida Alan Grayson are a handful of national lawmakers who remain on the right side of the issues.
4. Craig Watkins/ Innocence Project /Human Rights Watch. One of the major issues civil rights issues of our time is the incarceration of disproportionate numbers of Black and Latino men (over 1 million of the current 2 million plus populating America’s prisons). The Innocence Project, co-founded by Attorney Peter Neufeld and Attorney Barry Scheck of “Trial of the Century Fame,” has been at the forefront of demanding DNA evidence be used to exonerate those wrongfully imprisoned. Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, the only African American DA in the state of Texas was elected in 2007. Since then he’s partnered with the Innocence Project to overturn over 20 wrongful convictions. Alongside The Innocence Project, Human Rights Watch has brought necessary attention to U.S. policy regarding disproportionate targeting of Black men for long prison sentences. Its 2008 report, “Targeting Blacks,” documents racial disparities among drug offenders sent to prison.
3. Jena Six. For those nostalgic about the civil rights era mass mobilizations, the community wave of resistance to the Jena Six trial in Jena, Louisiana was notable. In 2007, famed civil rights leaders, Rev. Al Sharpton, and Rev. Jesse Jackson, led an estimated 50,000 people who came from all over the nation to protest inequality in the criminal system in Louisiana. Six black teenagers called the “Jena Six” were charged with attempted second-degree murder for beating a white classmate at Jena High School in 2006. The charge highlighted the acute racism in the justice system. Days before the protest march in Jena, the charges against the teenagers were dropped.
2. Rev. Al Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network, has evolved into sharing a role once dominated solely by Jesse Jackson, that of national civil rights spokesperson. In 2004, he borrowed from Jesse Jackson’s playbook of 1984 and 1988, when he ran unsuccessfully as a Democratic for president. Has been outspoken on issue of police brutality, and in 2008 led a series of protests in New York City in response to the acquittal of officers in the police shooting death of Sean Bell. In 2010 his National Action Network teamed up with the NAACP to lead the Reclaim the Dream March on the 47th anniversary of the March on Washington. In 2001 he was jailed for his participation in protests of US military bombing exercises on Puerto Rican island of Vieques. In 2000 he organized the Redeem the Dream March on the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington to protest police brutality, drawing an estimated crowd of 100,000.
1. Barack Obama. The election of Barack Obama represents in some ways the culmination of the civil rights dream, described by Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington “I Have a Dream” speech. Can Black people be embraced for the content of their character rather than the color of their skin? Obama’s success at securing the highest office in the land signaled a significant if not a definitive “yes,” an idea embraced by both the left (Rep. James Clyburn) and the right (Bill Bennett). Forty-three percent of white Americans voted for Obama (not quite a majority). As president, Obama’s positions on jobs, healthcare, women’s rights, education, etc., all lean into a civil rights agenda. But his tendency to cave in to a moneyed elite concerns leaves his critics unconvinced.
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