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Civil rights movement struggling to keep up momentum

A common scene from the South of the '60s  
April 4, 1998
Web posted at: 12:59 p.m. EST (1759 GMT)

From Correspondent Brian Cabell

ATLANTA (CNN) -- While some who were active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s reflect Saturday on how far the nation has come since then, today's activists warn that complacency is putting further advances in jeopardy.

"I think the whole movement, both in the black community and in the federal government and in big business, is sort of floundering," said civil rights activist Andrew Young, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

In the 1960s, the fight was a moral one, and it was clear to most people which side was right and which was wrong. Today, the issues -- affirmative action, for example -- are less clear-cut.

In addition, more black Americans have moved into the middle class, so the need for a civil rights movement seems less urgent.

Some wounds, including alleged financial mismanagement by Ben Chavis, former president of the NAACP, have not helped. Membership in and financial support for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have suffered.

But there is also a positive trend cutting into grassroots activism: For nearly 20 years, notes historian David Garrow, "most African-American civic political energy has been going into electoral politics."

Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-California; Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell; and former congressman Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP, are just a few examples of blacks who have become elected officials, a role previously denied them. Changes can now be made from within.

'Politics has a way of bringing about some change'

Jessie Jackson Jr

But talk to Jesse Jackson Jr., an Illinois congressman, and he will tell you the civil rights movement is not a thing of the past.

"Politics has a way of bringing about some change, but there's also such a thing as 'street heat,'" he said. "There's also movements within the community and also efforts to take back our communities."

As some African-Americans enter mainstream politics to achieve their goals, civil rights organizations are trying to regain some of their lost strength.

The NAACP now boasts Mfume and another longtime civil rights activist and politician, Julian Bond, as its leaders. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference recently elected Martin Luther King III as its president.

Yet the one African-American who can effectively and consistently rally a crowd to his cause is a man outside the traditional civil rights movement -- Louis Farrakhan. The Nation of Islam leader's message, uplifting for many, worries some mainstream civil rights leaders.


"When that message is coupled with anti-Semitism, with homophobia, with anti-Catholicism, and with a real contempt for American democracy, then the whole message becomes bankrupt and has to be discarded and set aside," said NAACP Chairman Julian Bond.

The message in the '60s was different. More important though, the times were different. They called for dramatic change, and people of unusual courage responded. Today, the drama has diminished, and consequently the leaders and their causes seem diminished.


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