By Barney Blakeney
Wednesday marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin L. King Jr. I asked several local civil rights leaders their thoughts about the progress made since King’s murder and how his life impacts our world today.
South Carolina National Action Network President Elder James Johnson, NAN V.P. for Religious Affairs and External Relations Rev. Nelson Rivers and Charleston S.C. Rep. Wendell Gilliard each agreed the 50 years since King’s assassination has represented some change, but their perspectives on that change were unique.
The 50 years since King’s murder means some Black people who now hold political, professional or public positions do so as a result of King’s sacrifice, but don’t realize it, Johnson said. Jim Crow racism and discrimination didn’t die with King, so Black people still are playing socio-political and economic catch up in a repetitive cycle of civil rights gains and losses, he said.
That repetitive cycle occurs because the quality of leadership exemplified by King no longer exists, Johnson said. Today’s brand of civil rights leaders too often succumb to trappings of financial gain at the expense of collective growth and progress, he said. Johnson cited gentrification and neglected young Black males as a consequence.
Gilliard said the Civil Rights Movement still is a ‘movement’ and the hallmarks of the movement continue to center on economic as much as social equity. Black business is conspicuously absent in the state’s $19 billion tourism industry, Gilliard said. In the metropolitan Charleston region where $9 billion of that revenue is generated the absence is more pronounced, he said. And like Johnson, Gilliard thinks a void in leadership contributes to that condition. There are more affluent Blacks today than when King was murdered, but fewer willing to assist others, he said. And like Johnson, Gilliard said inflated egos and hidden agendas take precedence over collective effort.
A failure to invest in young people and those who masquerade as advocates for the Black community yet fail to practice what they preach have assisted in the gun violence and gentrification that plaque Black communities as it never did 50 years ago when King was murdered, Gilliard said.
Rivers reminded however, that the Civil Rights Movement is not a competition between generations or organizations. And he reminded that while King was a great orator, he was equally capable as a strategist and methodologist who put plans and operations in motion to produce results. King understood the power of oratory was essential and that the implementation of methodology was indispensable, Rivers said.
Rivers said it is important to remember that the man whose birth we celebrate January 15 is not the same man whose death we commemorate April 4. During the 13 years King hailed from the mountaintop as a leader he changed, and many churches in Charleston where King is revered today, would not offer him a place to speak before he died in 1968. Those are among the things that validate the change since King was killed 50 years ago, Rivers said.