The Declining Role of the Modern Civil Rights Movement: New Challenges for the 21st Century Over

the past several decades, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s has nearly disappeared in national focus and significance. Its main purpose of fighting for and ensuring that civil and human rights for all are preserved in America, is now history. But were it not for the strong demands and presence of leading civil rights organizations, life for African American citizens and all minorities in America would be quite different than it is today. The narrow structure of America’s pre-civil rights society, intended to benefit only one segment of its population would still be in place. The struggle for civil rights began with and became the bailiwick of those Africans who first arrived to the shores of America in about 1619. They soon learned the difference between slavery and freedom, and their struggle for liberty was a continuous thread of social resistance, demands for equality, even in those early stages of their presence in a land strange to them. In the mid-twentieth century, the most active American civil rights organizations were vanguards of social change; however, mainstream establishment of the country resisted demands for it. In response, unforgiving leadership was provided by The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), People United to Save America (PUSH), The National Urban League (NUL), and, of course, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). That mantra of struggle for blacks in the United States culminated in, a century, almost, to the day after the Emancipation Proclamation, sweeping changes in landmark civil rights legislation. Sadly, despite the immeasurable contributions of early advocates, and these civil rights organizations, for the first time since the 1950’s and 1960’s, there is a generation of young black people who have no knowledge of them and what, historically, they stood for.

The significance of the role of black leadership responsible for the social freedoms they enjoy daily, but take for granted, is lost on them. With that said, it must also be assumed, that the current lack of recognition swings both ways. It is clear as well that there is a creeping disconnection between black leadership and the realities of black life. In the past, the individual roles of each of these civil rights organizations had a clear relationship to the lives of their constituencies and what it was they must accomplish. Today, their ongoing activities and social relevance are no longer so clearly cut. Cynthia Tucker, editorialist for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, in her August 9 column wrote, “The SCLC lives in the past, fights the last war, denies the future.” “It cannot admit that the social landscape has changed, that black Americans no longer face fierce and unrelenting discrimination, that [now the] politically active middle class worries about security, health care and job security, just like their white neighbors do.” It would seem then, that since blacks experience more debilitating diseases than any other group in the population, though lag in quality health care delivered, adequate and equal health care for blacks would now be the forefront of advocacy by civil rights organizations. Because blacks still face the highest mortality rates in America due to violence, it would seem that civil rights organizations would seek ways of intervention to thwart this scourge on black life. It would seem that since blacks lapse into and live in poverty more than any other group in the country, civil rights organizations would investigate and seek some redress here. Thousands of blacks are qualified to own and operate their own business. Sometimes the chief reason that hinders them from doing so is the lack of startup capital. This dilemma of black life, where alternatives are blocked, should be serious enough to inspire advocacy by civil rights organizations. A list of needs of needs and inequities could go on indefinitely. Black life and the diverse needs of it are so very complex. If civil rights organizations are to once again become advocates of equality and dignity of black life, they will have to reflect the true needs, dangers and concerns that affect black people today.

Terriel R. Byrd, Ph.D., is associate professor of religion and director of urban ministries studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University, West Palm Beach, Fla. He is a noted speaker, teacher, and consultant.