Since the beginning of the Ferguson protests, the past six months in the black community have been a time of activism, involvement and hyper-awareness of political activity. This wave swept through Baltimore, involving students, community leaders and parents. From shutting down York Road to #BlackBrunch protests at local diners, every day was a day when something politically exciting was happening around the city. I was constantly amazed at the level of critical engagement and attention that students from middle school to college gave to local and national stories. It felt like we were in the midst of a second civil rights movement
As a member of the revolutionary sandwich generation — my father protested in the civil rights movement, and my oldest son is now attending Ferguson "Teach-Ins" — and as someone who has only been tangentially involved, it has been interesting to watch these events unfold. The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted 381 days, and even though it has only been 197 days since Michael Brown was shot, I wonder whether the #BlackLivesMatter movement, without a leader or a national manifesto, can continue. Can it, as Rev. Heber Brown III asked at Loyola's "Teach-In on Ferguson" last week, "survive the winter"? While he was only talking about the weather, I began thinking about what it means for a movement to be able to survive a winter of discontent, a winter of inequality, a winter of setbacks and a winter of injustice — and about the amount of time since the turn of the 20th century that black people have been waiting for the winter to end.
Prior to 1941, 90 percent of black people in this country lived somewhere throughout the South. That figure had not changed much since the end of the Civil War. Between the system of sharecropping, domestic work, the albatross of Jim Crow and the reign of white terror in the lives of black people, the South was not a place that was conducive to the development of a black middle class or to the ending of our winter. This cloud of racist segregation also extended into the North as laws restricted the entry of black people into certain neighborhoods, jobs and schools.
America has changed dramatically since then, but some very significant things have stayed the same. The segregated plantations of the South, with their underemployed and unskilled black labor, have given way to the segregated neighborhoods in the North, especially where there is a tremendous amount of underemployed and unskilled black labor. Schools segregated by law, with very few books and resources, have given way to de facto hyper-segregated schools by neighborhood, with very few books and resources. Physical enslavement is an eerie ghost of the past, but economic slavery is very real and very present in our lives. The phenomenon of black children born into poverty in one of the richest nations in the world has morphed into black children born into extreme poverty (surviving on less than $1.25 a day) in what has arguably become a much richer, much more robust nation. In 1900, very few black children attended school or college; today, black students are twice as likely as their white peers to drop out of high school, and even though they are attending college in record numbers, they still lag behind when it actually comes to completing their bachelor's degrees.
At the same time, one could easily argue that our winter has ended as there are more blacks than ever succeeding across the spectrum: working as judges and doctors, serving in the military, running Fortune 500 companies, Ivy League colleges and indeed the country. At the extreme end, in 1940, for example, there were no black police officers working in any state in the deep South and only a few working in the North. Today, however there are thousands of black police officers working throughout the country. And whereas we once had no black Supreme Court justices, we have not been without one since 1967. Even with these successes in mind, however, I wonder what it will take for our winter to end.
My father once said that the revolution was trapped in the clouds and that if we wanted change to happen, we needed to pray for rain. And Reverend Brown said we needed to be like farmers, planting our revolutionary seeds and waiting for them to grow. I say we do it all: We pray and plant, we march with the young people, and we write manifestoes — and then we wait for the rain, for the harvest and for our winter to finally end.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead is an assistant professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland and the author of the new book, "Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America." She can be reached at email@example.com.
This is part three of a four-part series of op-eds by Karsonya Wise Whitehead examining the state of black America.