Every mass movement in America, the philosopher Eric Hoffer once wrote, becomes a racket in the end.
And he hadn’t even witnessed the full course of the civil-rights movement. If the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is a time for taking stock, the score is clear. The Dream was a glorious triumph, changing America forever and making it more just. The contemporary civil-rights movement, partly as a consequence, is an intellectually exhausted disgrace.
It is the victim of its own success. No longer confronted by a system of American apartheid and incapable of simply saying “We won,” it subsists largely on imagined slights and manufactured controversies unrelated to the welfare of real people.
Somewhere along the line, the movement took on all the moral majesty of an effort to extort contributions from corporations, a favorite tactic of Jesse Jackson. The Congressional Black Caucus, for its part, is a sponge for business money, making it “a fund-raising juggernaut,” in the words of a New York Times report.
The difference between the movement then and now is the difference between confronting grave injustices and coming up with excuses for your latest press release; the difference between connecting to the nation’s profoundest ideals and reflexively agitating for more government activism; the difference between a calling and a career.
As Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity notes, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Al Sharpton is the personification of the Karl Marx line that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Great challenges call for great men; frivolous times call for late-afternoon cable-TV hosts who are fodder for “Saturday Night Live” parodies.
King did his work under clear and present physical threat. He had a well-developed moral philosophy, based on a profound engagement with the biblical prophets and Reinhold Niebuhr. He wasn’t merely glib, but truly eloquent, a practiced Baptist preacher who wedded the cadences of the Bible to the nation’s founding ideals under the unbearable pressure of historic events.
Then there’s Sharpton, whose career is a catalog of the ridiculous and outrageous in pursuit of newspaper clips and cable-TV appearances. If there were genuinely something consequential at stake, as in the fight against segregation of the mid-20th century, it would be a disaster for the country that Al Sharpton is so prominent.
But that fight is won, no matter how loath King’s self-appointed heirs are to admit it. At his speech at the Mall, Sharpton said Jim Crow has been vanquished, but now the struggle continues against James Crow Jr., ESQ. The old Jim Crow knocked down protesters with high-pressure fire hoses; the new one asks everyone to bring an ID when he or she votes. The apple has fallen very far from the tree.
In his own speech, President Barack Obama cited people serving the community or otherwise demonstrating kindness or regard for others and declaimed that they “are marching,” just like those marchers in 1963. This is a strained metaphor in the service of a deep misunderstanding. These people aren’t marching; they are living admirable lives in a society where the civil-rights marches of yore are no longer necessary. Surely that’s the point.
What the contemporary civil-rights establishment can’t acknowledge is that cultural breakdown has more to do with the struggles of blacks than any officially sanctioned discrimination. To his credit, Obama says as much at times. It is one of the reasons that Jesse Jackson in 2008 thought he was “talking down to people,” and mused on an open mic about performing an anatomically sensitive operation on the presidential candidate.
Fifty years ago, a movement using self-sacrificing tactics fought and defeated racism in the streets and in the halls of power. Today, its successors use the charge of racism to try to shut down all argument and deflect uncomfortable conversations. They aren’t a testament to the legacy of a great movement so much as to its degeneration.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.