Fifty years ago, the United States was at a crossroads. The daughters and sons of enslaved Africans found themselves as “second-class citizens” in the land of their birth. African descendants were denied the right to vote and access to public institutions in many states, particularly in the South, where over half of the Black population was located. The ideology of white supremacy was institutionalized, as an apartheid order reinforced by racial violence and terror existed in most of the South. It was common for Black women to be raped and sexually harassed by white men with no hope of justice within the criminal justice system. Federal, state, or local officials did not significantly investigate or prosecute the assassinations of key opponents of racial injustice, such as Medgar Evers and George Lee in Mississippi.
In response to the U.S. apartheid system and white supremacist violence, tens of thousands of African descendants and their allies mobilized to challenge the system of oppression. A mighty insurgent movement emerged against segregation and for civil and human rights in local communities throughout the South. Friends and allies worked in solidarity with this movement inside the U.S. and internationally. This was the context of the 1963 March on Washington.
It must be noted that the Kennedy Administration and elements of the liberal coalition (trade union aristocracy, Protestant and Catholic hierarchies, and foundations linked to the Democratic Party) co-opted the March and subverted grassroots, radical, and insurgent voices of the Black Freedom Movement. The speech of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and its chairman John Lewis (now Congressman from Georgia) was censored and changed by March organizers to suppress SNCC’s critique of the federal government’s lack of protection and intervention on behalf of voting rights workers in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Conservative and moderate Black leadership cooperated with this silencing of grassroots Black voices. The suppression of grassroots voices at the March is why Nation of Islam Minister Malcolm X labeled the 1963 event, “The Farce on Washington.”
Today, fifty years after the 1963 March, the struggle for democracy and human rights for African descendants born in the U.S. is not complete. While tremendous sacrifices have been made and reforms secured, Black life in the U.S. is still challenged and not valued in the society. The killing of Trayvon Martin and the recent acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, is only the tip of the iceberg. A study by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement released this year documents 313 Blacks were killed by police or security guards in the U.S. in 2012. 313 killings? That’s one every 28 hours!
Black oppression can also be demonstrated in the educational achievement gap and in the disproportionate rate of housing foreclosures in working class and privileged African-American neighborhoods. The recent U.S. Supreme Court compromising of the Voting Rights Act and subsequent initiatives to neutralize Black and Latino voting potential also exemplify continued efforts by elites and the beneficiaries of the U.S. origins as a white settler colony based on racial slavery to stop empowerment and self-determination of communities of color.
A new movement is emerging to oppose contemporary challenges to human rights, Black empowerment, and disrespect of Black life. The outrage from Black communities nationally in the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict demonstrates potential resistance to the disregard for Black humanity. Nationally, grassroots activists have opposed foreclosures against banks that engaged in unethical policies to profit off the misery of working people, and particularly Black folks in the U.S. The recent court decision declaring New York’s “Stop and Frisk” policy unconstitutional comes in response to the grassroots campaigns to challenge it.
One important recent victory is the 2013 election of human rights attorney and activist Chokwe Lumumba to Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, the state’s largest city and capital. Jackson’s 80% Black population is the second highest percentage in the U.S. In the city’s runoff, Lumumba defeated an opponent who with conservative white and corporate support out-financed him three to one. As a candidate for City Council in 2009, a People’s Assembly in his ward created Lumumba’s campaign platform. The People’s Assembly was composed of citizens from his ward with no restrictions. The People’s Assembly continued to operate after Lumumba’s election to City Council advising him on policy and initiating efforts on economic development, education, and community safety in their district. Lumumba promises the expansion of the People’s Assembly concept citywide with his election to Mayor. The People’s Assembly offers a new model of progressive and Black politics and a vehicle to include grassroots participation.
To complete the effort for human rights, democracy, and Black self-determination, the abovementioned effort must be built on. We must recognize these and other grassroots efforts in our celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. History will judge our inclusion or ignoring of grassroots voices for social justice.
Akinyele Omowale Umoja is an educator and scholar-activist. He is an associate professor and chair of the department of African-American studies at Georgia State University, and author of We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (NYU Press, 2013).