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Civil Rights for a New Generation: Rescuing the Abandoned

The 50th Anniversary March on Washington is an opportunity to begin paving a way to freedom and equality for the “least of these” of black America.

African Americans have made astounding progress in my lifetime, and particularly since I founded Black Enterprise 43 years ago. A black family resides in the White House, headed by a black man, President Barack Obama, serving in the most powerful position in the world. But it goes beyond that most obvious symbol of African American progress. The numbers of black people who hold positions and have power and influence that transcend race—from Oprah Winfrey and Robert L. Johnson to Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and his wife, Beyoncé—defy casual enumeration and can be found in nearly every conceivable arena from Wall Street to Hollywood.

Even more telling than the swelling ranks of African Americans among the rich, famous, and powerful is the impressive and continuing growth of the black middle class, with its corresponding increase in income. Indeed, according to a recent Nielsen study, black spending power is set to cross the trillion-dollar threshold by 2015.

Many would—and do—cite these and other realities of 21st century black America as ample evidence that 50 years since the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and 150 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans have reached the promised land of equal opportunity. The civil rights movement, of which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a leader and is now the patron saint, has triumphed—and we have, finally, overcome.

It’s a nice, comforting, and even inspiring notion. But it’s just not true. To believe otherwise is to write off the roughly 25% of African Americans still enmeshed in crushing poverty; underperforming public schools; rampant unemployment; substandard healthcare; cycles of violent crime and imprisonment; and dysfunctional, underserved neighborhoods. To declare that we have overcome is to forget about those who Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Eugene Robinson labels in his book Disintegration as “the abandoned.” Leaving them behind to focus exclusively on building black wealth and making the black middle class more secure is the equivalent of shutting down the Underground Railroad and ending the abolitionist movement based on the twisted logic that all deserving black people had been freed and the rest were just meant to be slaves. Such thinking is not only morally repugnant, but an offense to the principles upon which America stands as a beacon to the world.

Our nation will have much to celebrate as we recognize the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington on Aug. 28. However, we need to take this occasion as an opportunity to not just revel in the civil rights victories of the past generation, but to set and refocus the civil rights movement for a new generation—with a clear focus on building a pathway for the “least of these” of black America to the promised land of freedom and equality. Our partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to engage African American business leaders in the battle to fix our public schools is just a small example of what must be our new civil rights priority—to build a new “Underground Railroad” from poverty and dysfunction to the mainstream of unlimited opportunity that a growing number of African Americans now enjoy.

So, no—though we’ve come a mighty long way, we have not overcome. But deep in my heart, with the ideas, ideals, and energy of a new generation with a new civil rights mission, I still believe we will.

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  • Sick of the color card-

    ” roughly 25% of African Americans still enmeshed in crushing poverty; underperforming public schools; rampant unemployment; substandard healthcare; cycles of violent crime and imprisonment; and dysfunctional, underserved neighborhoods. ” So what about the OTHER RACES who suffer the same issues….. We all have them not just African Americans. The schools you mention are integrated so they serve ALL RACES not just African Americans and the health care system …. DO African Americans have a different program than everyone else? It should be about the betterment of all persons REGARDLESS of color. I do believe that is what MLK prayed for. By your standards until all African Americans have all their issues resolved the world is against them…. So What about the same issues for Asian, Hispanics, Indians, Caucasians???? Are they any less deserving? STOP USING THIS AS A FORUM TO SEEK YOUR OWN SUPERIORITY. Love all men seek betterment for all men regardless of color.

  • Ayya S.

    Responding to the previous comment: Yes all children matter, and large numbers of children of all races in the USA suffer effects of poverty. However, black children are statistically more likely to be in that situation. US Census Bureau states: “For children identified as Black the poverty rate was 38.2 percent (4.0 million), twice as high as the rate for White children…” http://www.census.gov/prod/2011pubs/acsbr10-05.pdf (p. 4). Black kids have a poverty rate TWICE AS HIGH as white kids!? And according to the Census Bureau, it is much worse for black kids in some places; in ten US states 47% – 53% of the black kids live in poverty. (p. 6)

    If people who have resources can be inspired to help *any* impoverished children, that is a blessing. If black upper-class & middle-class people can be specially inspired to help their own race, that’s a good thing; why criticize? If a sense of identification with or loyalty to people of their own race will motivate some folks, good!

    And if more help and attention goes to black children, great! A higher percentage of poverty clustered in one race does bad things to that race and to the whole country, so it makes sense to target for assistance the racial group that desperately needs it the most.

    The Publisher’s Letter is a thoughtful, well-written and timely reminder, as the 50th anniv. arrives of the 1963 March on Washington. Let those who have succeeded not forget those caught in the widening divide of wealth/poverty. As a white Southerner who marched in ‘DC for the 20th anniversary, I send cheers to those who show up this year. May we live to see changes for the better that would make Dr. King happy for us all.

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