Generations Shift in the Civil Rights Movement

Martin Luther King III leads new breed of civil rights activists into the 21st century.

For the first time in the history of this powerful civil rights organization, a man who has never heard the growl of police dogs or seen the inside of a jail cell is now at the helm of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

It's not as though the SCLC's new president is a stranger to the fight for equality in America: He is the son and namesake of the organization's founder Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But for all of "Marty" King's rich lineage, he hasn't tasted the courage of sitting at a forbidden lunch counter - and he's a different breed of activist because of it.

The same holds true for the leaders of the country's other top civil rights organizations - the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League - and even in the US Congress. Nearly across the board, today's black leaders are a generation removed from the original struggles of the civil rights era. And their younger world vision is changing the shape of today's movement.

"Jesse Jackson will be there for awhile, but other than that, the torch has been passed," says Ronald Walters, University of Maryland African-American studies professor.

Today's leaders tend to be less dramatic orators and less tied to the 1960s style of staging sit-ins, marches, and boycotts, observers say. They have more experience in the political or business realms (and less in the religious) and are more likely to work within those sectors rather than protest them.

"These leaders grew up in the post civil rights era, so there is a tendency to look toward alternatives other than a protest mode," says Robert Brown, professor at Emory University in Atlanta.

This new crop of leaders has a different focus, as well. They see their primary goal as seeking economic rather than political parity for their constituents. Even whom they see as their constituents has changed: Some groups are including Hispanics and other minorities now and there is more emphasis on women and youths than before.

Granted, some of the realignment on the part of black organizations is a result of the gains already won by a previous generation. There is a consensus among old and new leaders that economic equality is the final frontier for the movement - so much so that even the Rev. Mr. Jackson is jockeying for economic power on Wall Street in addition to rallying in Washington.

But much of the new tenor in the civil rights movement can be attributed to the new leaders themselves, who are embarking on a fresh search for solutions to both recent and lingering problems. Take NAACP president Kweisi Mfume's youth initiative, for instance.

Since Mr. Mfume took over the troubled helm of the country's largest civil rights organization in 1996, he has focused on creating a healthy network of youth chapters across the country. It's a step that illustrates his generation's brand of fighting for freedom: Tackle the problems in the street, first. Politics can come later.

"We're hoping to prove this is not a social club as much as a socially active organization," says the Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, the youth director for the NAACP. In the past two years, he says the youth arm of the organization has zeroed in on ending inner-city violence, cleaning up crime, and convincing gang members to exchange their weapons for NAACP membership. "We have to begin to respond to the crises within our communities," he says.

Martin Luther King III has revealed few of his plans for the SCLC, but the former Fulton County commissioner says he'll focus on affirmative action. Last year he formed Americans United for Affirmative Action, a coalition of organizations trying to prevent its dismantling.

King is also looking to lead by effecting change on the streets rather the in the law books. His emphasis as SCLC president, he says, will be to blend the wisdom of the older generation with the energy of the new. That sentiment has earned commendation from outgoing president, Rev. Joseph Lowery. "I think that will give the movement even greater momentum," he says.

While this new generation earns high marks, observers note that the change in leadership style has resulted in the black community losing its tradition of having one voice articulate a unified vision - and some of the power that goes along with that.

What could be key to the success of this new era of civil rights, but difficult to achieve scholars say, is the creation of a strong coalition of black organizations that pull together with a common voice when it's called for.

"The necessity of having this framework is much greater today because you don't have a Martin Luther King-type spokesman," says the University of Maryland's Professor Walters. "If a black leadership forum begins to be effective, that might change the movement's whole dynamic."

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