It’s hard to believe that nearly four decades have come and gone since the heyday of the civil rights movement and the "We Shall Overcome" marches that shook the South and much of the nation. A decade of social upheaval, the 1960s brought into vogue the sit-in and boycott as African Americans across the country sought an even playing field. Those events culminated in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s "March on Washington" in 1963. The optimists among us would like to think those days of civil disobedience sparked social awareness and gradually ushered in an era of social, political and economic change.
The pessimists in our group might say we’ve taken two steps forward only to take one back.
Regardless of your perspective, one thing remains clear: African Americans still have a long row to hoe before they achieve economic parity in this country. The tools that worked with some effectiveness in years past have to be sharpened and modified, making them more potent as we enter the next millennium. In short, the protest march alone isn’t going to cut it anymore. And as civil rights leaders have come to rally around the $400 billion in income that African Americans now wield, many have come to realize that, as a group, we wield an impressive stick — the all-mighty dollar.
With this in mind, the black enterprise Board of Economists recently met in New York to discuss the different economic strategies being implemented by two civil rights organizations. Present at the discussion were Thomas D. Boston, an economics professor at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta; Andrew F. Brimmer, president of Washington, D.C.-based Brimmer & Co.; Margaret Simms, vice president for research at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C.; Cecilia A. Conrad, economics professor at Pomona College in California; Lucy J. Reuben, dean of the School of Business at South Carolina State University and Earl Graves Jr., be president and COO.
Also present at the discussion were three representatives of civil rights groups on the firing lines: Jeanne Hitchcock, chief of staff, and Linda Witherspoon Haithcox, manager of economic development, of the NAACP, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network.
FIGHTING A COMMON FOE
Both organizations are entrenched in the civil rights struggle. In its 90-year history, the NAACP has long led the fight for social equality. But in recent years the organization has also come under some scrutiny, perhaps deservedly so, as many in the African American community have begun to question its relevance.
Often slow to get to the forefront of many hotbed issues, the organization had begun to take on the aura of a relic. Even the acronym "colored people" seemed to be a holdover from a different time. The NAACP desperately needed someone to shake the cobwebs off. It went out and handpicked a sitting congressman, Kweisi Mfume, to give the group a needed kick in the rear.