I was excited to see the movie Selma when it came out. Popcorn in hand, I sat down and anxiously waited for the endless previews to conclude. The movie was brilliant. I was moved by the meticulous attention to detail and the powerful narratives of suffering and triumph. As I continued to watch, however, I became disturbed. Many of the themes and challenges portrayed in the movie were identical to those we wrestle with today. Watching gross state violence via police, black poverty and basic challenges to democracy, I began to ponder what the Civil Rights Movement ultimately accomplished and why I so hope we don’t have another.
Protest is the theme of the day. Ferguson is yet again ablaze and the spirit of the old Movement appears alive. Young people, prompted by the same state violence I witnessed in Selma, have had enough and are determined to fight back. Whether hijacking the mic from Bernie Sanders, crashing Martin O’Malley’s announcement or interrupting white folks at brunch, there is undoubtedly an energy and resistance from young people similar to what we saw in the 1950’s and 1960’s. That frightens me. Why, you might ask? Protests and relentless advocacy attached to the Civil Rights Movement eventually helped move legislation on the federal level to guarantee protection from blatant discrimination in public accommodations, employment, housing and also to ensure blacks access to the voting booth. Essentially, masses of powerless black people were granted nicer treatment by their oppressors.
The results in 2015 aren’t especially awe-inspiring. Young black males today are twenty one times more likely to be killed by state (police) violence. The wealth gap between blacks and whites has actually increased since the 1960’s. The gap in infant mortality between blacks and whites actually increased from the 1930’s into the 2000’s. Despite the passage of the Voting Rights Act, as support for a policy rises within the black community, it actually becomes less likely that it will ever materialize. This is despite the fact that blacks have even, in select years, outvoted whites as a percentage (2012, for example). Besides all that, the Voting Rights Act itself is under attack. In fact, President Obama was recently moved to pen a letter to advocate the restoration of the landmark legislation.
I’m watching a great moment of potential that could be squandered. We don’t need another movement that begs oppressors to be more benevolent in their oppression. We don’t need another Civil Rights Movement. We can advocate for police reform and perhaps legislation will materialize that forces the police to be nicer to us as a people. Perhaps more officers will be prosecuted when they shoot us (although officers who are accomplices by virtue of false testimony designed to protect the guilty will go free). Perhaps but will those reforms fundamentally fix what is wrong: the lack of power, self-determination and the ability to defend our interests as a people? Hardly.
I advocate that we forego the press opportunities and some of the meaningless gestures of protest. I’m advocating that the same energy driving us to march and risk arrest drive us to divest from institutions that undergird oppression. The same fire that compels us to disrupt brunch can also force us to withdraw our dollars from multinational banks that support oppression; that fire can lead us to steer deposits into local credit unions, get ourselves voted on the boards of those credit unions and thereby control the direction of those institutions (and black-owned banks). The same energy required to lay in the street must guide us to walk those streets in search of businesses to support that hire our people and no one hires more black people than black businesses.
Without the vote of one elected official, we can shift the dynamics of power with our dollars today. I am in no way dismissing protest and the need to raise awareness about injustice. However, we must learn from our past or we will most certainly repeat it.