But leaders bequeathed us – Americans who are Black, Hispanic, Asian, white, wealthy, poor, men, women, spiritual, atheist, gay, straight, young, old, government, and civilian – a roadmap to progress. It’s time we pick up the map, re-orient our collective compass, and turn our rudders toward justice.
People of African decent are the only Americans whose families started in the U.S. as slaves. Throughout the entire history of the U.S., Black Americans have been systematically separated from the main society and from their families, often for life.
The tragedy and inhumanity of the institution of slavery are universally acknowledged. However, some argue that slavery ended 150 years ago and enough time has passed that there should be no lingering effects. They argue that if Black Americans still suffer, it’s a personal failure and not a systemic one.
We had slavery in America until 1865, and for a very brief time, the government worked diligently to assist former slaves in making the transition to life as freedmen. However, the Reconstruction Era efforts, driven by Southern state political powers and former slave owners, collapsed in 1877.
Then Black Americans suffered under Jim Crow segregation laws and culture until 1965. Between 1961 and 1966, Black men were 13 percent of the U.S. population, but were 20 percent of the U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam. In 1971, the U.S. government reported that soldiers developed heroin habits in Vietnam, and President Nixon expressly declared a war on heroin users. In the 1980s, the CIA flooded Black neighborhoods with crack cocaine, and the U.S. declared a war on people who dealt or were addicted to that drug. From 1980 to 2008, the number of people living in U.S. prisons quadrupled, from about 500,000 to 2.3 million people, which is the largest prison population in the world. Of those, 1 million are Black. Today, Black students in the U.S. are three times as likely to be expelled from school as white students. The unemployment rate for Black Americans was depression-like in the 1960s, and it still is today.
Progress for Black Americans pretty much halted after desegregation and the killings of John F. Kennedy (1963), Malcolm X (1965), Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968), Robert Kennedy (1968), and Black Panthers Fred Hampton (1969) and Mark Clark (1969), among others contributing to community empowerment.
These leaders – including Black Panthers members Angela Davis, Shirley Chisholm, Huey P. Newton, and Eldridge Cleaver – shared a common message, and it’s past time that we deliver it in unison:
- Peace isn’t possible without justice.
- When injustice exists for anyone, it hurts everyone.
- Power concedes nothing, including justice, without a demand.
I have come to see that it must be a massive movement organizing poor people in this country, to demand their rights at the seat of government
Martin Luther King, Jr. advised that demands for justice be unified. He advised workers to demand justice through unions, and for Americans to support those demands by collectively not buying from businesses with bad practices. He advised demanding justice at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. And if leaders don’t respond to the demands by reforming the system, he said, the failure is their lack of response, not a failure by those making demands.
“I have come to see that it must be a massive movement organizing poor people in this country, to demand their rights at the seat of government in Washington, D.C.,” Dr. King advised union Local 1199 in New York on Mar. 10, 1968, shortly before his death.
“Now I said poor people, too, and by that I mean all poor people. When we go to Washington, we’re going to have Black people because Black people are poor, but we’re going to also have Puerto Ricans because Puerto Ricans are poor in the United States of America. We’re going to have Mexican Americans because they are mistreated. We’re going to have Indian Americans because they are mistreated. And for those who will not allow their prejudice to cause them to blindly support their oppressor, we’re going to have Appalachian whites with us in Washington.”
Today, we can add to those demanding justice people who are taking up the call that Black Lives Matter. We can add people demanding justice for community members who are LGBQT. We can add advocates for prisoners’ rights. We can add police officers being torn apart trying to serve justice in a system that’s unjust from top to bottom in the communities they serve. We can add young people who want to learn, but find social and financial roadblocks throughout the educational system, from grade school through graduate school. We can also add environmental advocates, who are demanding our rights to clean power and air and water that is not polluted by dirty power plants near their homes. We can add food advocates, who are demanding our rights to know when food is genetically modified and laced with Monsanto’s Roundup.
In short, the Occupy Wall Street movement had it right: We can add the 99 percent of Americans whose political, social, and economic lives are much more intertwined and similar than they are different. While the 1 percent of Americans holding most of the nation’s wealth have quietly lobbied for laws that benefit their interests at the expense of the 99 percent, what have we collectively done to claim our birthright of government by and for the people? We must pick up the map charted by our leaders slain in the 1960s and make united demands for policies that heal systemic diseases.
“There’s a reason why I cannot speak loudly,” Stokely Carmichael told Sweden in 1967. “When I was very small, I used to speak very loudly. I used to come home and I yelled, ‘Hey, mom! I’m home!’ And my mother would say, ‘Black people are not supposed to be loud.’ Because we were ashamed of being loud, and so I tried to be soft. But I’ll try to be loud again.”
It is time for the 99 percent to stand up and to be loud, demanding justice and pursuing peace together.