On September 13, 2013, New York Law School had the pleasure of hosting a few of the most progressive civil rights lawyers and social justice advocates at our Racial Justice Symposium, Remembering the Dream, Renewing the Dream. We were also proud to host several of the Civil Rights Movement’s pioneers, including Clarence Jones, Dr. King’s lawyer, adviser and one of our featured panelists. During the “Fierce Urgency of Now” panel, Jones discussed the March on Washington, its history and how Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech came to be. Mr. Jones also discussed some of the statistics and issues facing minorities today, such as the correlation between single-parent homes and poverty rates for African-Americans. The discussions of the day concentrated on the challenges social justice advocates face in modern society and the strategies they can utilize to counteract issues such as apathy within the community.
Although everything Mr. Jones discussed that day was poignant and insightful, the point that really struck a chord with me was one he made in response to a question raised about how modern civil rights advocates can fight against the hurdles that remain in the fight for racial and social justice, specifically in the wake of police shootings like the Sean Bell murder and the vigilante homicide of Trayvon Martin. In his response, Jones called current leaders to task, requesting that they demand accountability from the Police Department when police misconduct and brutality occurs. He also urged advocates to lobby the State legislature to tackle the disparities which exist in education that detrimentally impact minorities. When I inquired further about how current leaders could begin to garner the interest of residents about these issues, Mr. Jones replied, that any obstacles in recruiting volunteers, rally attendees and lobbyists, could be overcome by being organized and conveying a clear message about the movement’s goals.
While I wholeheartedly agreed with Mr. Jones that organization and conveying passion about the purpose and goals of a movement are most persuasive in recruitment efforts, I also believe that in modern times, advocates struggle to mobilize volunteers because people have become less concerned about issues that do not personally affect them or their immediate family, yet impacts others within their race; A stark contrast between the current movement for racial equality and the Civil Rights movement. Unfortunately, the spirit of accountability, brotherhood and unity those in the 1960’s embraced, has seemingly dwindled in recent times. For example, in the current struggle to reduce racial disparities within the New York City Police Department’s practices, although many people express messages of support through social media, very few are willing to sacrifice their personal time to volunteer with organizations who are working to reform policies such as stop and frisk. When communities fail to participate in the fight for racial justice, social justice organizations lack the support necessary to end discriminatory practices. Minority involvement is specifically fundamental to the advancement of criminal justice reform because in order to garner interest from others who may only be indirectly impacted by racially targeted policing, it is important for those whose rights are directly violated to assist in protecting their own interests. Without their assistance, the fight for criminal justice reform and racial equality continues to be an arduous process.
To overcome these challenges, racial justice advocates and attorneys must work together to engage the community through numerous methods. To bridge the gap between the community and advocates, creative approaches such as hosting fun social events infused with components of social justice, should be utilized. Similar to what keynote speaker Geoffrey Canada has done with Harlem Children’s Zone, and what Stephen Bright did in assisting with the development of the public defender system in Georgia, civil rights advocates have to carry the torch Dr. King left and trail blaze our way to change by being innovative. We must continue to work towards the change we want to see in the world and hope that in time, others will follow.
Geoffrey Canada began his career as a teacher in New York City with the belief that in three years he would be able to reform our public school system. When confronted by obstacles and the bureaucratic nature of the education system, he realized that his expectations fell short of reality and a better alternative was necessary. So in 1990, he founded Harlem Children’s Zone. Harlem’s Children Zone is a non-profit organization that combines educational, social and medical services for Harlem residents to counteract the disparities minorities face in poverty, education and health care. The organization also provides comprehensive education through their Promise Academy Charter schools, which teaches students from grades K through grade 12. Praised for his commitment to education reform and the impact he has made on thousands of Harlem residents, Geoffrey Canada has identified his dream as the need to provide quality education for minority youth. With this goal in mind, Mr. Canada’s work demonstrates that when provided with the opportunity to receive a stellar education, minority children thrive, increase their potential for social mobility and exceed the expectations imposed on them by the NYC school system. It is the spirit of leaders like Canada who make significant strides towards change every day that will move the current racial justice movement forward.
As we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington where Dr. King gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech, we must remember his dream and reflect on the purpose of the Civil Rights Movement. On that day, Dr. King ignited the crowd with passion and excitement for the future; a future full of promise and equality for all. As we continue the fight for racial justice we must embrace the positive developments which have been made in the last fifty years. However, we must never forget that in order to renew Dr. King’s dream, current leaders must be relentless. We must be steadfast. We must be creative. We must be fearless. Most of all, we must be united. We must join together to accomplish our shared goal; to achieve the racial equality necessary to realize Dr. King’s dream.