There Is Still Good Will, but Not Consensus


Washington.--Organizers of the 30th-anniversary civil-rights march on Washington have scaled back their earlier crowd expectations. At first, organizers said they expected 500,000, double the size of the original march made famous by Martin Luther King's historic "I have a dream" speech.

But, with the big event only a few days away, former District of Columbia congressional delegate Walter Fauntroy, who also directed the 1963 march, would vaguely predict only "tens of thousands" at a press conference of march organizers.

Other reports indicated tepid interest in buses, hotels and other facilities compared to earlier marches.

Frankly, I'm not surprised. Times and the issues have drastically changed. Unfortunately, traditional civil-rights leaders don't seem to have changed with them.

I was still in high school in a southern Ohio factory town when I watched the 1963 march on our family's black-and-white television set. Hard-core racial segregation was still a reality. When we visited relatives in the South, we had to sleep in our car or drive all night long because there were no motels along the way in which we could sleep. When we needed water or a restroom, we had to look for the signs that said "colored."

Segregation in the North was just as real, but not as obvious. My family was turned away from a local amusement park because we were black. We were turned away from several local restaurants. Most of the same newspapers that carry this column today would not have hired me then.

Yet, a strong national consensus already was building among people of good will. The 1963 march helped focus that consensus on the passage of specific civil rights and voting-rights legislation to remedy historic ills.

Today, unfortunately, there is no single piece of legislation to tackle in a tidy way today's more complicated issues of economic inequities and racial distrust.

Even the 20th-anniversary march 10 years ago, which some estimates say brought out a bigger crowd than the first, had the timely, energizing issues of a proposed Dr. King holiday, proposed sanctions against South Africa, opposition to the Reagan presidency and the building presidential candidacy of Jesse Jackson.

By contrast, today's civil-rights march pales into a parody of the original. Gone is the sharp focus of the 1963 march. Gone are the easy irritants of George Wallace, Lester Maddox, P.W. Botha or Ronald Reagan. Gone is the excitement generated in 1983 by Harold Washington's successful mayoral campaign in Chicago and Mr. Jackson's building presidential race.

This year's march, with the uncertain commitments of Bill Clinton's weathervane White House, has tried to drum up a coalition of disgruntled labor, ethnic, women and gay leaders to fill its ranks. The result is a march under a banner overloaded with issues unrelated to each other and only loosely related to the rights of blacks.

At various moments, organizers say, the march will be supporting reproductive rights, gay rights, gun control and national health rights. It will also oppose capital punishment, mandatory sentencing and the North American Free Trade Agreement. You name the cause, this march will have it.

Regardless of their individual merits, these issues have yet to generate a consensus across the nation, let alone in the black community. Indeed, they are so divisive, they may discourage more coalition than they encourage. How many conservative black pastors, for example, can we expect to march arm-in-arm with gay-rights leaders?

Americans of good will have made great progress since 1963, but much unfinished business remains. Yesterday's "Negro problem" is today at least two distinct sets of problems. One is the tragedy of poor blacks left behind by the civil-rights reforms of the '60s. Some were helped by President Johnson's anti-poverty programs, but many others remain more isolated than ever from the role models and social values that might lift them out of drugs, crime, welfare dependency and other social pathologies.

The other is the far more subtle problem of perceptions. Despite the breakthroughs of Oprah Winfreys, Doug Wilders, Bill Cosbys or Colin Powells, black Americans of all classes live with the irritations of being branded more criminal, more "arrogant," less trustworthy and less human than we really are, solely because we are black.

Thwarting anti-discrimination laws, employers, lenders and others who want to discriminate against blacks or anyone else are learning the right language they must use in order to avoid lawsuits. Nobody wants to be called a "racist" these days. Even former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke opposes racism today. But even if virtually everyone across the political spectrum speaks well of the goal, hardly anyone these days seems to agree on precisely how to get there.

We can't solve economic ills with civil-rights remedies alone. We can't solve our civil-rights problems with marches alone.

We need to return to the grass-roots. We need to organize today's isolated poor. We need to revive deteriorating values of family, hard work and self-reliance. We need to cultivate the local religious and lay leadership the past 30 years of civil rights and political strategists have overlooked.

The 1963 march persuaded me and countless others around the world that a few dedicated individuals making great sacrifices could change society for the better. They still can. But first we need a road map for change and leaders who will be change agents.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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