The Damaging Statement We Make When Civil Rights Orgs Honor Men Like John And Neglect Women Like Angela

It’s important to think twice
As the president of my local NAACP branch, there’s not a day that goes by when I don’t hear or read an accusation that our organization and other civil rights groups are antiquated and out of touch groups beholden to corporate funders and thus no longer able to speak truth to power. As much as I believe venerable organizations like ours and others are yet relevant and needed in the fight against injustice, I find it difficult to debate such criticism when civil rights groups continue to embarrass the African American community and affirm the criticisms of a generation that has lost all respect for them. It is a fact that most civil rights organizations are financially supported by the very entities that are hurting Black communities. It is hard to mobilize against the debilitating effects of the decisions, practices, and policies of banks, alcohol and tobacco, insurance, retail, sports, and entertainment industries when they are paying the bills. This should be a time of serious inflection as younger generations are looking elsewhere for leadership rather than a what they perceive as a bourgeois civil rights community that does not have the capacity to relate to them.
The loyalties of the NAACP, the Urban League, the National Action Network (NAN) and others are constantly called into question over their decisions to either remain quiet on an issue of concern or to back a corporate entity in a manner perceived as questionable. For example, the New York Post reported that civil rights organizations were being paid to remain silent on lack of Black television programming with the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner. The National Association of African-American Owned Media (NAAAOM) filed a $20 billion racial discrimination lawsuit against Comcast and Time Warner Cable, that included the NAN, the NAACP, and the Urban League as defendants. There is much that civil rights organizations must do to shed the image of being elite social clubs detached from the daily realities of Black life in America.
What has happened in the civil rights community over the past few weeks only exacerbates this image and gives additional fodder to our detractors. Within days of each other, the Atlanta based King Center for Nonviolent Social Change and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute made separate announcements that were equally devastating to the reputation of traditional civil rights organizations. Not only were these announcements disappointing, they affirmed the level of influence that individuals, corporations, and entities outside of the Black community have to control decisions made by organizations that are supposed to advocate for it.
First, the King Center proudly sent a tweet announcing that it would be posthumously honoring the late U.S. Senator John McCain with the ‘Trumpet of Conscience’ Award at its Salute to Greatness Awards Dinner on January 19. It noted in its press advisory that McCain was “a decorated U.S. senator who fought battles in Congress and a valiant one against cancer.” What it failed to mention was that McCain was a life long opponent of civil rights, voted against the Martin Luther King, Jr. federal holiday, opposed the funding of the MLK Holiday Commission, and supported the murder of thousands of civilians across the globe. There was no area of McCain’s life that embodied anything the late Dr. King lived or died for. As a matter of fact, that sound you hear right now is Dr. King rolling over in his grave at the mockery of a center named in his honor, and supposedly dedicated to educating a global network of individuals and organizations to work collectively using his philosophy and methods of nonviolence to create the beloved community, giving an award to a man who spent his entire life ensuring that the beloved community would never come into existence. After releasing their announcement, the King Center was immediately met with harsh criticism for its decision. Not wanting to face the public scrutiny, the King Center deleted its tweet and posts from other social media accounts and removed the mention of McCain from the website. Amazingly, the center was unwilling to answer to the public it solicits support from and supposedly seeks to educate to make nonviolent social change.
As if the King Center announcement wasn’t disenchanting enough, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) announced that it would no longer honor renowned scholar, civil-rights activist, and Birmingham, AL native Angela Davis with its annual Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award. Davis is one of the most famous leaders of the civil rights movement. She is a political activist, academic, and author who was an activist in the 1960s working with the Communist Party USA and the Black Panther Party during the Civil Rights Movement. When word that she was being honored hit the streets, BCRI received immediate pushback from the Jewish community because of Davis’ support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) that protests Israel’s inhumane treatment of Palestinians. Ironically, the snubbing of Davis happened simultaneously with a bipartisan effort in the U.S. Senate to pass legislation that will make it a federal crime to support the BDS movement or to, in any way, be critical of, boycott, divest, or sanction Israel for its crimes against humanity.
Having originally praised Davis as an educator who “gave to those who are powerless to speak,” BCRI buckled under pressure, rescinded its honor and issued a statement saying that Davis “does not meet all of the criteria on which the award is based.” After being rightfully dragged for such a cowardly act, BCRI apologized for the poor handling of the situation and the subsequent fallout. They noted, “In hindsight, more time, conversation and consideration of diverse viewpoints should have informed our decision to rescind our nomination, and we were silent for too long afterward.”
So, there you have it. The King Center, no doubt being supported by corporate interests, will honor an anti-civil rights advocate who voted against the holiday for the civil rights icon for whom the center is named and the BCRI, under pressure from those who wish to silence voices of dissent calling for the humane treatment of oppressed people, will not honor a civil rights icon who has dedicated her life fighting for the rights of disenfranchised people around the world. What should be a positive celebration of civil rights history and an opportunity to honor a well-deserving Black woman for her life’s work toward serving humanity has turned into an embarrassing and unnecessary conflict.The celebration of a man who stood for racism and militarism, things vehemently condemned by Dr. King, will take place at a center that bears his name.
In order to avoid being moribund and irrelevant, today’s civil rights organizations must stop treating the bleeding of support from among our own constituents by infusing resources, board members, and influence of those from outside our communities into the veins of their organizational structure. If structural changes are not made post-haste, civil rights organizations will continue down the slippery slope of becoming relics of the past instead of instruments of effective action for the present and the future.