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ON REFLECTION: Was civil rights fight worth it?

Ricky Jordan

ON REFLECTION: Was civil rights fight worth it?

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Sad to say, my heart is down, my head is turning around. But it’s not because I had to leave anybody in Kingston Town – to paraphrase singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte – but because we as black people seem to have hardly gone anywhere in the so-called developed world, namely the United States.
In looking to the United States, I cannot help but wonder whether the selfless work of Martin Luther King Jr and others martyred in the cause of equality and social justice was really worth it.
True, there are no longer bathrooms, water fountains or restaurants with Whites Only signs across North America. Blacks no longer have to sit in the back of the bus. America has a black president who represents the pinnacle of success. And Blacks have long come into their own via entertainment and sports.
But I still wonder whether the martyrdom of people like Dr King, Malcolm X and others was in vain. And why is it that Mr Belafonte still has to feel as if he’s fighting battles similar to those fought 50 years ago, especially poverty among Blacks and the high incarceration of black men?
In fact, Belafonte, who says in his bio-documentary Sing Your Song – screened at the opening of the CaribbeanTales Film Festival last week – that he lives “in a perpetual state of optimism”, is also declaring at age 85 that there’s still work to be done in the cause of social justice.
This legendary singer and actor was a confidant of Dr King and a top-selling recording artist who used his craft and risked his life to champion the cause of equal opportunity in America and apartheid South Africa.
Today one is forced to ask why aren’t more of today’s black artistes using their platforms for social justice and whether, in fact, they aren’t in some cases the cause of violence and other negatives that perpetuate the racial profiling of our black brothers in the United States.
Thug life is glorified in hip hop, young black women are largely portrayed as sex objects, youths are advised to get rich or die trying, so it’s very likely that this, coupled with youthful aggression, drugs and crime, causes racial profiling to raise its ugly head from time to time.
And with a disproportionate number of African Americans in prison in the United States, which has the largest prison population in the world, 2.4 million, there are strong parallels between the prison “industrial complex” and the American system of slavery and disenfranchisement of black people!
And if social justice had indeed been achieved, why is the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age Of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander being so highly acclaimed as it shows that it is perfectly legal today to discriminate against convicted criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans.
“Once you’re labelled a felon, the old forms of discrimination – employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits and exclusion from jury service – are suddenly legal,” says in its description of the book whose author, a civil rights advocate and litigator, has served as director of an organisation that spearheaded the American national campaign against racial profiling.
If equality has been achieved, why is there raging debate over the killing of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who lost his young life in circumstances all too reminiscent of behaviour in America’s south back in the 1950s? And why was Troy Davis executed last September amid so much doubt regarding the killing of a police officer 23 years ago?
What about Rodney King, whose brutal beating by four white police officers in April, 1991 remains as fresh in the memory as yesterday’s happenings? The fact that King won US$3.8 million in damages via a civil suit – after the officers’ acquittal sparked three days of rioting – can be seen as justice, I guess.
America has not come far and neither has the Caribbean, and it must be difficult to live in a state of “perpetual optimism”, but I admire Belafonte for mastering the art.
Still I ask: was it all worth it, since the widely covered acts against Trayvon and King are a fraction of the racial incidents still occurring in the “land of the free and home of the brave”?