Though color barriers breached, class obstacles linger

February 06, 2006|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- Coretta Scott King can rest easy. She's earned it. The civil rights movement, which she embodied in the decades after her husband's assassination, transformed not just the South but the nation. In paying tribute to her, we should take just a little time to consider how far we've come.

Because of the sacrifices she and her husband and so many others made, we have banished the laws and traditions of Jim Crow. An irresistible tide of social justice swept away the peculiar social customs that limited where black citizens might stand, sit, eat and sleep. And the widespread presumption of white superiority began to recede. White supremacists these days are nutcases. They used to be governors and senators.

Some who mourn the matriarch's death wonder whether her passing signals the end of the civil rights movement as well. Actually, the movement passed quietly away decades before she did; it won the war and retired from the field.

That doesn't mean that racism is dead, America is colorblind or injustice is out of fashion. Any measure of social health still shows that black Americans lag well behind whites in health and life span, in income and wealth, in educational attainment.

By some indications, black Americans are worse off than at the height of the civil rights struggle: In 1968, only 31 percent of black children were born outside marriage. Now, about 70 percent of black children are born to unmarried women. Research suggests those children - especially if their mothers are poor - are more likely to struggle in school, to wander into drugs and delinquency and to end up poor themselves.

But the growing disparities between the two black Americas - those who are well-off and those who are left behind - don't invalidate the movement. Instead, those discrepancies remind us of the struggle cut short by the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. - the Poor People's Campaign, the crusade to end inequalities not just of color, but also of class.

For the better part of two decades, Dr. King and other lions of the civil rights struggle concentrated on destroying legal barriers to black equality. They took aim at laws that allowed segregated schools and "whites only" water fountains, poll taxes and all-white police forces. They won every one of those battles.

While Dr. King's soaring rhetoric sought to change men's hearts, his tactics had clearer targets: He marched for the right to vote. He had a dream of a time when the sons and daughters of former slaves and the sons and daughters of former slave owners could sit down together, but his daily efforts focused on concrete, quantifiable goals - the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act. Yet achieving those goals was nothing short of miraculous.

It is possible, at times, to be transfixed by the marvel of the transformation - a change so dramatic that perhaps Dr. King himself would be impressed: back-to-back black secretaries of state, black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, Oprah Winfrey.

Undoubtedly, though, Dr. King would also be struck by the failure of his followers to carry on the campaign he started shortly before he died. Class is a harder line to cross these days than color.

Perhaps a nation with a short attention span just lost patience. Or perhaps that crusade never gained currency because the problems were more complex than we imagined, lacking the good vs. evil storyline of the civil rights movement. Whatever risks lay before the civil rights soldiers, whatever obstacles they faced, their cause was simple enough.

Not so with the complexities of educational failure, drug dependency or falling marriage rates, all of which contribute to sink people into poverty and keep them there. A march on Washington wouldn't stop music producers from pumping out lyrics that glamorize thug culture, nor would pickets stop teenage girls from having children they can't take care of.

Instead, a new war on poverty would take a lot of hard and unglamorous work from politicians who fight for unpopular programs; from churches that focus on uplifting the poor rather than prosperity for their preachers; and from volunteers who start Boy Scout troops in poor neighborhoods. It's hardly the sort of stuff that draws TV news crews.

Still, a renewed commitment to end the limitations born of class does hold this promise: It reaches Americans of all colors, from white single mothers in rural Georgia to brown high school dropouts in Los Angeles to black men struggling to find jobs in Newark, N.J. And it's a cause big enough to demand something from each of us.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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