Remember these names: Ashley Yates, Johnetta Elzie, and Deray McKesson. They could get an invite to meet President Obama in the Whites House, but for some odd reason, there was confusion about whether the young Ferguson activists could speak at the #JusticeForAll march called primarily by Al Sharpton’s National Action Network on December 13.
There should not have been confusion. If history is a guide, it likely had to do with the well-known fact that Sharpton is finicky – to put it mildly – about who speaks at events he’s connected with.
In the case of the Ferguson activists, they kicked off a round of unprecedented global attention on the issue of police brutality. So, an invite from Sharpton should have been automatic. Why wouldn’t it be? The reason is obvious: Certain leaders will never ever exit the stage on their own volition. The idea that the next generation should “wait their turn” is perfectly laughable since everyone knows they will never be granted one.
Young activists did what someone should have done a long time ago: They took the mic away from old leaders and started talking. Seems like I remember a story of Jesse Jackson asserting himself in SCLC. I read about John Lewis, the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) being told to tone down his speech in order to speak at the 1963 March on Washington. We’ve been watching old heads giving press conferences, organizing marches, and summits for years. It’s long past time for something new.
Keeping young people out of the spotlight is nothing new. I was there in 2013 when there was “no time” for Dream Defenders Executive Director Phil Agnew to speak at the March on Washington 50-year commemoration. As Agnew walked to the podium, Sharpton arrived and started speaking. Funny how that happens. Were we really supposed to believe that a 10-hour program couldn’t spare Agnew two minutes?
At Mike Brown’s funeral, Sharpton ended the speeches with himself. And just think, we’re not talking strategy yet – just speaking. Not only have young leaders been marginalized, they have been deliberately blocked by old ones. Next year yet another “leadership summit” is planned by the oldheads.
This would all be fine if Black leaders were racking up policy wins, but they aren’t.
When it comes to the issue of police brutality, certainly Sharpton is not the real issue or the true problem. Michael Stewart in 1983. Eleanor Bumpurs in 1984. Amadou Diallo in 1999. Patrick Dorismond in 2000. Sean Bell in 2006. Eric Garner in 2014. Sharpton has been championing the issue of police misconduct for more than three decades. What are his wins? If you’re the White House’s anointed “go to” man on Black issues, one would think an occasional victory would be easier to come by.
But think again.
Johnetta Elzie lives in a town where a cop became a millionaire after killing an unarmed teenager. That teen’s body lay in the center of the street for more than four hours. In the weeks that followed, cops shoot two other Black males to death under questionable circumstances. One had a butter knife that police claimed he threatened them with in “an overhead grip” style. A tape emerged proving they were liars. Ms. Elzie wouldn’t stay quiet when everyone said shut up and calm down. She didn’t stay quiet on December 13 either.
This isn’t about a microphone. It’s about who decides strategy. It’s about who decides “what’s next.” It’s about power and what will be demanded from whom. Already we see that Ferguson leaders could care less about whether the White House is happy at the expense of focus on issues in the Black community. For four years Sharpton has deliberately avoided challenging the president on any issue. Has that worked? Could Martin Luther King have won policy victories without pressuring Lyndon Johnson? How is it’s possible that Sharpton can walk in and out the door 61 times in six years and have nothing to show for it?
Meanwhile, Hispanic and gay leaders won ENDA and DACA and $1.2 billion in the CRomnibus for immigration relief at the border as Pell Grants and pensions are cut. All to the silence of civil rights leaders.
And what is the current backdrop? The economic situation is worse for African Americans. The unemployment rate being double has been accepted as “how it is.” The wealth gap between black and white is the largest in 25 years as Black “leaders” said nothing as President Obama agreed to make the Bush tax cuts permanent. The percentage of Blacks in poverty is 27 percent as community block grants were cut to the silence of leadership.
When the Obama administration cost HBCUs $150 million, and 28,000 students at HBCUs had their education interrupted there was little pushback. What were Black leaders pushing for and against? What were they doing as these policies were being decided on?
Lauren Victoria Burke is freelance writer and creator of the blog Crewof42.com, which covers African American members of Congress. She Burke appears regularly on “NewsOneNow with Roland Martin” and on WHUR FM, 900 AM WURD. She worked previously at USA Today and ABC News. She can be reached through her website, laurenvictoriaburke.com, or Twitter @Crewof42 or by e-mail at LBurke007@gmail.com.