Black History Month: Are you a victim, an activist, or beneficiary?

ImageBlack History Month is a pause in time to reflect on our history and our progress here in America. One of the observations I have made in looking at all the tributes, speeches, and activities is that there are three general themes that run through the dialog that emerges during this month.  While this is a time to reflect and raise our consciousness about our place in the history of this nation, it is also a time to position ourselves for the future.  Our perspective -- whether looking back or looking forward -- is based in large measure on whether we see ourselves as victims, activists, or beneficiaries of the progress that has occurred.


I have lived through the period of greatest progress for African Americans since the abolition of slavery  -- the civil rights movement of the 50's and 60's.  In many ways my life has followed the path of progress from victim, to activist, to beneficiary.


The evolution from victim, to activist, to beneficiary

The Black high school students in my home town of Farmville, VA were victims of poor education facilities and went on strike in 1951 to demand better facilities (this was in the era of "separate but equal").  Their activism became a part of the1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional. Subsequent generations of Black students are now the beneficiaries of better educational facilities and opportunities, from K-12 through college. Yet, achievement gaps between black and white students persist.


The outgrowth of this decision in 1954 led to theMontgomery, Alabama bus boycott in 1955 sparked by Rosa Parks, which lasted 13 months. The Greensboro, North Carolina lunch counter sit-in followed in 1960. The activism of black people culminated in the March on Washington in 1963, and Dr. Martin Luther King's famous "I have a Dream" speech.


These mass actions led to the 24th Amendment to the Constitution in 1964 banning poll taxes. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination of all kinds based on race, color, religion, or national origin. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, made it easier for Southern blacks to register to vote. Literacy tests, poll taxes, and other such requirements that were used to restrict black voting are made illegal. President Johnson signed Executive Order 11246 in 1965, which enforced affirmative action for the first time. It required government contractors to "take affirmative action" toward prospective minority employees in all aspects of hiring and employment. President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, prohibiting discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing.


This concentrated chronology of activism is unparalleled in our history.  These actions in the 20th century created a generation of beneficiaries who had opportunities for employment, education, housing, and voting rights that our forebears only dreamed of. 


The 21st Century presents new challenges

Now, as we enter the 21st century, it appears that some of the progress has eroded.  The so-called War on Drugs has filled our prisons with huge numbers of Black men, invoking the resurrection of the New Jim Crow. The Voting Rights Act is under attack. The sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2007-2008 wiped out the wealth of the Black middle class in its wake. The economic recession that followed left twice the percentage of blacks unemployed.


The recent protests surrounding the deaths of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown, and Eric Gardner -- not to mention innocent deaths in urban communities -- have identified new victims and ignited a new level of activism within our community.  Where does this leave us in the cycle of victim, activist, and beneficiary?  Social media has responded with the hashtags #HandsUp and#BlackLivesMatter. Are these reactions the spark to the next wave of progress?


"To go from protesting to power, you need demonstrations, legislation and litigation," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the veteran civil rights leader who has acted in recent months as an informal adviser and cheerleader for several new groups. "Sprinters burn out real fast. These young people need to be in it for the long run. And it must be an intergenerational coalition. A movement that's mature requires clergy and lawyers and legislators. The struggle is never a one-string guitar."


We all have a stake in the Virtual Black Community

I believe we all have a stake in the outcomes that affect the virtual Black community.  The tidal wave of activity in the 60's opened so many doors of opportunity, and spawned a significant advance of blacks into the middle class. We can even now identify an iconic group of millionaires and billionaire blacks.  Old neighborhoods transformed. New enclaves of middle class Blacks became integrated into the suburban landscapes of our major cities. Left behind was a declining urban landscape characterized by poor schools, high unemployment, and crime.  The recent recession has also demonstrated how fragile our position is, no matter which of these class distinctions describe us.


Regardless of where we reside in this new landscape, our actions evolve from our personal perspectives on our progress.  Each of us must ask, "Am I a victim, activist, or beneficiary? Maybe I am a little part of all of these." The question is which of these perspectives is the primary driver of our actions?


If we think we are victims of systemic and institutional barriers that cannot be overcome, our response will be muted and outcomes limited for ourselves and our children.  We will complain about our present circumstances, and become potential dropouts -- unprepared for new opportunities.


If we view ourselves as activists, we will continue the struggle of Douglass, Du Bois, Woodson, Malcolm and Martin.  We will fiercely defend the right to vote by showing up for every election.  We will protect our advancement in the workplace by redoubling our efforts to achieve and create opportunities for those who follow us.  We will pursue the highest level of education and become lifelong learners. We will speak truth to power as "virtual activists" -- through petition, donations, and participation in rallies that demand justice.


If we view ourselves as beneficiaries, we must share our stories of struggle, progress and achievement, and seek to inspire future generations.  We will enjoy the fruits of our labor and pass on the lessons of hard work, perseverance against the odds, and small victories that provide a better foundation for the progress of our children and grandchildren.


Our legacy informs our progress

We have not fully overcome the legacy of 400 years of slavery and the old Jim Crow or the new Jim Crow.  The election of the first Black President was a milestone in our progress, not the victory that transforms all of our lives.  In fact, President Obama's election was actually a clarion call to greater activism in the face of the opposition and backlash that he and all of us faced.  Sadly, too many of us missed that clarion call. Too many of us went home after the 2008 election and said to our president, "You got this."  Some have even blamed President Obama for the decline of Black progress during his administration.  Shame on those who blame the president for the Tea Party and conservative backlash of 2010 and 2014 that resulted in Republican control of 23 state legislatures, 31 Governors offices, and majorities in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Instead we should have said loudly and clearly, "We got your back."


We all share the legacy of the victims of slavery.  We all share in the benefits of the activism that brought the progress of the 20th century.  But freedom is not free.  Those of us who are beneficiaries of that progress must renew our commitment to a new activism -- not just in local communities of Ferguson, or Staten Island, or Oakland -- but in the virtual Black community that has the potential to unite all of us to consolidate the gains we have made and pass them on to our children and grandchildren.  If we fail to recognize our virtual potential, our children are doomed to repeat the cycle.


Frederick Douglass' view of the approach we must take is timeless:

"If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."


Yours in the struggle,


 Roger Madison, CEO

iZania, LLC