Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What does the black community owe the icons of the civil rights movement?

Andrew Young, former U.S. Congressman, mayor and first African American ambassador to the United Nations, is a civil rights icon.

He encouraged African-Americans to register to vote in Alabama, and sometimes faced death threats while doing so. He became a friend and ally of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at this time. In 1957, Young moved to New York City to accept a job with the National Council of Churches. However, as the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, Young decided that his place was back in the South. He moved to Atlanta, Georgia and again worked on drives to register black voters. In 1960 he joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Young was jailed for his participation in civil rights demonstrations, both in Selma, Alabama and in St. Augustine, Florida. Young played a key role in the events in Birmingham, Alabama serving as a mediator between the white and black communities. In 1964 Young was named executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), becoming, in that capacity, one of Dr. King's principal lieutenants. He was with King in Memphis, Tennessee when King was assassinated in 1968. SOURCE

Andrew Young is also the man who said this:

Now, some folks in the blogosphere, like Jack Turner at Jack and Jill Politics, are calling Young an out-of-touch has-been, a former lion that has passed his prime. Others, like NPR's Tony Cox, are appalled at the idea that veteran activists should be put out of pasture and deemed irrelevant because of age. Who is right? Here's how I see it:

You know how people say that power corrupts? It's human nature, really. A man starts out as an angry idealist who wants to change the world. The Idealist motivates others and assembles a following. He works hard in the trenches. He puts his life and reputation on the line. He speaks truth to power. He achieves great things. He becomes an icon. The Icon is revered by members of the movement. He is feted and stroked by interests eager to connect with the movement. He enjoys the perks. Soon The Icon begins to think he is the movement. He has all the answers. Newcomers to the movement must kiss his ring, show deference to his cronies. The grateful masses are reluctant to call him on his bullshit. After all, he is The Icon.

It's not about age. Hubris has no age criteria. It was arrogance and a lack of accountability that led Andrew Young to put on that vile display last week. And Young's comments were vile. I mean, how many damaging racial chestnuts can you trot out in one conversation?

- Bill Clinton is an honorary black man. Apparently, all it takes to be a black man is to be born in poverty, to not know your daddy, to be a philanderer and to know how to lead a mean Soul Train line.

- If you do not have the prescribed black background, then you cannot be part of the black community and you certainly cannot lead it. The preferred background includes growing up with black parents (preferably in poverty), exclusively dating black partners and knowing the civil rights old heads that are in Andrew Young's Rolodex.

- Black people do not have to practice racial sensitivity or indeed know anything about other races and cultures. Everything I have read says Lolo Seotoro, Obama's stepfather, was Indonesian. To Andrew Young, he was "a Chinese."

So, what does the black community owe activists, like Andrew Young, who fought during the height of the civil rights movement? We owe them our gratitude--for doing the work and taking the punches (literally and figuratively) necessary to make the world better. What we don't owe them is a pass to indulge in behaviors that damage the ongoing struggle for black equality. We owe those powerful civil rights icons the truth.

So, Mr. Young, I say "thanks" and "shame on you."


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