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Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Selma, and the moral scarcity in modern-day civil rights

Written By | Jan 15, 2015

LOS ANGELES, January 15, 2015—Today is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s actual birthday. Had he lived, he would have been 86. One wonders what his opinions would be on what we have done with the weighty legacy he left behind.

The movie Selma is also out in theaters, giving a new window on the Civil Rights struggle that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Writer-Director Ava DuVernay’s film is a sobering, rich, and powerful retelling of those historical moments in 1964 Selma, Alabama. Seeing the power, presence, and passion of Dr. King artfully portrayed by actor David Oyelowo, as well as the re-enactment of the give and take between Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and John Lewis of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, merely spotlights the total lack of conviction or moral authority in the civil rights movement of today. In place of an intelligent, articulate, and anointed Dr. King, we have the mush-mouthed Al Sharpton, and the empty bumper sticker slogans of “No Justice, No Peace,” and “Black Lives Matter.”

Dr. King is flipping in his grave.

Not only are the current protests against police brutality lacking in any real authority, they lack strategy that will truly affect change. The non-violent protests of the Civil Rights era were engineered for maximum effect: to show the brutality of a racist power structure, and to secure the rights already inherent in the Constitution for a race long-denied those rights. This required courage of convictions, patience, and perseverance by all involved. Most were jailed multiple times, and many died to secure those rights for themselves and the generations to come. Now, we show our lack of knowledge and appreciation over this struggle by not showing up to vote unless there’s a black candidate or a cause that catches our eye on the ballot.

Annie Lee Cooper is also flipping in her grave.

That moral fiber is sorely lacking in this new civil rights activism. The supposed leaders stand for different things (most of them violent), and when you speak to anyone on the protest lines, they cannot clearly articulate why they are there and what they wish to accomplish. Without a vision, the people perish, and will continue to do so.

Oprah Winfrey, who portrayed Annie Lee Cooper in the film (and is one of the producers) weighed in on the lack of leadership in this new wave of protests:

“I think it’s wonderful to march and to protest, and it’s wonderful to see all across the country, people doing it, but what I’m looking for is some kind of leadership to come out of this to say, ‘This is what we want. This is what has to change, and these are the steps that we need to take to make these changes, and this is what we’re willing to do to get it,’ “ Winfrey said.

“I think what can be gleaned from our film is to take note of the strategic, peaceful intention required when you want real change.”

Scrape me off the floor, as Oprah said something this writer agrees with. However, what is most lacking in these protests is effectiveness.

The first spark of the Civil Rights struggle, the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, lasted 382 days, with 90 percent participation from blacks. The result: The Montgomery transportation system lost revenue because a majority of its riders were no longer using it. Finally, the courts ruled that segregation of city bus services was unconstitutional.

Over 20 years of freedom rides, sit ins, and non-violent marches resulted in legal and civil rights advocacy, and more importantly, civil rights gains: Brown v. the Board of Education, The Civil Rights Act of 1957, The Civil Rights Act of 1964, and The Voting Rights Act of 1965, were the fruit of hard labor and focused, intelligent advocacy that hit its intended target.

Today’s protests are organized to annoy, disrupt, and wreak havoc for havoc’s sake. Marchers and protesters block freeways and bridges, preventing hard-working people of all colors from getting to work, and first-responders from saving lives. The latest protest tactic, called “Black Brunch”, has activists disrupting the toney and trendy brunch spots in New York and Oakland to read the names of unarmed black people who were gunned down by the police.

The New York Post calls it a “curious link between brunch and police brutality.” The Post also said, “Big Apple organizers likened their brunch attacks to 1960s sit-ins.”

You have got to be kidding me. Sit ins involved blacks sitting in a “whites only” section of Woolworth’s and other stores where they were not allowed to frequent. The Black Brunch protesters could walk into these places, get seated anywhere, and buy an overpriced Eggs Benedict and latte. The only color that is cared about is green. So, besides momentary media attention, exactly how is this going to change the tactics of police? These supposed civil rights activists chose to disrupt brunch spots already populated by people who are mostly sympathetic to their cause. It’s weak sauce.

Newsflash to Black Brunchers and Black Lives Matter protesters: How about going inside of a police station and giving that rant? Oh, right, you wouldn’t get past the doors without getting arrested or shot. Dr. King, Annie Lee Cooper, and the peaceful protesters of the Civil Rights era knew that they would get arrested, beaten, and shot, but they protested anyway. Their selfless work bore the desired result.

Or why not scale the walls of those bastions of “white privilege” called country clubs, where the people who actually could affect some change spend their time? That would at least involve a strategy that reaches the intended target, not just some emotional-, and theatrically-based tantrums in order to get news coverage, and little else.

Here is what has been the result of this current wave of supposed civil rights marches: Ferguson is now a burned-out neighborhood with businesses decimated from “peaceful protests”; business owners and residents of the town are picking up the pieces, sans news coverage, and are emotionally on hairtrigger for any new incident that could re-spark the violence, and; two dead New York city policemen are grieved by their children who are now fatherless. Those aren’t gains, those are losses. Seems like this modern movement is 0 for 2, and without any real moral conviction or leadership, it’s doubtful that this will change.

Come May, I will be curious to see where #BlackBrunch and #BlackLivesMatter fall in the national conversation. Most of America has the attention span of a flea. The ugliness of Islamic terrorists Boko Haram killing 2,000 innocents in Nigeria, and Al Qaeda murdering the Charlie Hebo cartoonists in France has already bumped police protests from the local and national headlines. How many of these protesters and supposed activists will be willing to stay in the struggle until the struggle has accomplished its goal? Half of these young people will probably be too wrapped up in the Season-ending of Empire to care.

Legitimate civil rights protests? It’s so last century.

Jennifer Oliver OConnell

Jennifer Oliver OConnell

Jennifer Oliver OConnell offers witty, insightful, and direct opinion, analysis and musings on local and national politics and popular culture, with occasional detours into reinvention, food, and Yoga. Jennifer also teaches Yoga, and coaches clients on careers and reinvention. You can keep up with what's in Jennifer's orbit through her As the Girl Turns website.