Amid their grief over the death of Coretta Scott King, black advocates say that her passing underscores a growing concern: As the movement’s iconic leaders fade into history, much of the focus is on honoring the past rather than pushing for equality today.
“We will now celebrate Coretta Scott King as though the civil rights movement is finished and the mission has been accomplished, but the work is not done,” said Bruce Gordon, president of the NAACP. “We should be very respectful of — and encouraged by — the substantial progress that has been made. But in no way, shape or form should we conclude that the civil rights mission is complete.”
Social justice activists all said it’s important to remember King for the decades of work she devoted to keeping alive her husband’s push for equality through nonviolence. That work continued until her death Tuesday following a string of serious health problems.
Too many anniversaries?
But there’s also a sense among advocates that modern activism is being overshadowed by a near-constant string of commemorations for bygone victories: the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education in 2004 and, last year, the 40 years since the historic march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, Ala., leading to the Voting Rights Act.
Inevitably, such remembrances intensify in the first months of each year with the mid-January holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr. that his widow fought to win and with Black History Month, which began Wednesday. In addition, each time an important civil rights figure dies — be it Rosa Parks, Ossie Davis or now Coretta Scott King — it renews the focus on the movement’s history.
Some advocates are concerned about that eagerness to look back.
“Part of that over-focusing on history and not looking at current realities of racial discrimination is another form of denial,” said Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights Under Law. “Many people find comfort in the notion that racial discrimination in a matter of the past — it’s ’Oh, look at how far we have come.”’
Ronald Walters, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, said he’s also “suspicious of commemorations.”
“In some quarters, there’s a feeling that the movement has passed its course,” he said. “That’s the reaction of the younger generation mostly — the post-civil rights generation.”
Advocates note that it doesn’t take much searching to find social justice battles left to fight. Hurricane Katrina unveiled stark racial disparities in New Orleans, and blacks still have more than double the rates of infant mortality, unemployment and poverty as whites, said Gordon, who took the leadership post at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People last year.
The Alito effect
That King’s death occurred on the same day that Samuel Alito — whose nomination many civil rights advocates bitterly opposed — was confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court illustrated that the work of Coretta Scott King and her husband is not over, said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Council on Civil Rights.
Alito’s “selection represents the culmination of a 20-year strategy by conservatives to retake the courts and a turning away from the civil rights agenda represented by the [Earl] Warren court,” Henderson said. “This carries some symbolism.”
Many mourned King’s death even as they worried about how to keep her mission alive.
“I’m concerned that people don’t take her passing as an opportunity to further antique the causes that she and her husband and others stood for,” said Theodore M. Shaw, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. “Anybody who thinks that work is over is either terribly ignorant or willfully blind.”
Henderson agreed: “I think she would be disappointed if the tributes ended with her being elevated to some god-like status without also recommitting ourselves to a social justice agenda that she very much helped symbolize.”