Maybe this will be our generation’s Birmingham.
The pictures that streamed out of Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 showed young Black boys and girls attacked by German Shepherds and drenched with the powerful spray of fire hoses.
Those pictures exposed to the world the hypocrisy that rests at the heart of America. Those pictures exposed the intense racism that rests at the heart of this country.
Those pictures exposed the utter lack of credibility of the U.S. in its bloody intervention in Southeast Asia.
But those pictures also inspired and radicalized a generation of young African Americans and young progressive whites that enough was enough and that it was time to break the back of Jim Crow.
For African Americans in the North, where there was no legal segregation, the pictures from Birmingham confirmed a humiliating second-class citizenship.
The same can be said of the awful pictures streaming out of New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast towns that were obliterated by Hurricane Katrina.
Like Birmingham 42 years ago, today’s pictures of impoverished Black Americans wading through chest high sludge; being corralled into the Super Dome or the New Orleans Convention Center like cattle; portrayed in the American media as looters, armed thugs, murders and rapists; sitting atop their asphalt roofs in 100 degree swamp heat waiting to be rescued or waiting to die are all sharp reminders that for all of the rhetoric and crap the U.S. spews about democracy, freedom and opportunity, 140 years after the Civil War ended and 40 years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed racism and class inequality remain the pillars upon which this twisted country is built upon.
The rumors coming from the mayor of New Orleans and other officials is that maybe 10,000 people have died as a result of Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath.
10,000 people. Mostly Black and mostly poor.
This is not a disaster but a crime. And the sad reality is that this nightmare and this crime is only at its beginning. There is an idiocy and a contemptuousness directed towards the poor and Blacks that pervade the political duopoly in this country. The moronic idea, for example, that you can “house” 20,000 in an old baseball stadium makes you shake your head. In an area outside of Dallas, Texas, dozens of displaced evacuees were taken to what was planned as a minimum-security prison but has now been turned into temporary housing.
This in the richest country in the history of the world.
The formal shredding of the social safety net-brought to us by former President Bill Clinton in 1996-means that the half a million or so folks from Gulf Coast region have just been kicked off the ledge with nothing to break the fall.
There is no more welfare and food stamps are increasingly becoming out of reach in this country.
There is no decent, affordable housing in this country.
There is no universal healthcare in this country.
Given the scale of the crisis, the government will be forced to provide many of these things-temporarily. But temporary is not a solution. Without steady and living wages this untenable situation will quickly become an impossible situation. Black unemployment in the U.S. is at almost 11 percent. In some cities like Chicago and New York unemployment for Black men has reached the 50 percent threshold. Where will these jobs come from? Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao said on MSNBC that 10,000 temporary jobs will be created.
500,000 people displaced. 10,000 temp jobs.
When the state is forced to spend some money on the welfare of some people it will inevitably raise questions as to why this government can’t always use its tax dollars to take care of the people who live here instead of wasting money on imperial projects and corporate bailouts
42 years ago when the pictures from Birmingham surfaced, American officials were shamed and embarrassed as the pictures of American racism and brutality made the front pages of papers around the world. The emperor had no clothes.
Today, the pictures and stories from the survivors of this disaster should finally lay to rest any notion that the war in Iraq is anything but the racist, imperial conquest it is. From New Orleans to Fallujah, the lives of poor, colored people have no value, no worth to the wealthy white men who run this country.
During the last campaign for the presidency of the U.S., it wasn’t until the third debate when moderator Bob Scheiffer finally asked Bush and Kerry a question about race. The question was whether or not affirmative action was outdated. Neither the question nor their answers were as important as the way in which the duopoly and the craven media avoid issues of race and class as if they were a plague.
The crime of New Orleans has put both of those issues back on the front pages of every newspaper across the country. The Black political establishment has even been shook beyond its usual irrelevance and complacency. These are all positive developments.
But if this is truly to be the Birmingham of our generation, it is not enough to point out the litany of racial injustices that shape and define American society. We have to organize and we have to fight back against these injustices. We may even need to organize and fight for a new civil rights movement.
October 15, 2005, marks the ten-year anniversary of the Million Man March. When Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan organized that march in 1995 he told the women to stay home and Black men to beg forgiveness for a lifetime of sin. Next month on that same date, Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Rev. Al Sharpton will re-convene the Millions More Movement march in Washington D.C. This time around Farrakhan has thrown down the welcome mat to “Christians, Muslims, Hebrews, Jews, agnostics, nationalists, socialists, men, women and youth” to “com[e] together in agreement that the time is now for us to articulate our demands, and to accept our responsibility to change the condition and reality of our lives.” The demands of this march include ending the war and the prison industrial complex. It would be a shock if the organizers of the march did not now include demands around the conditions of the New Orleans and Gulf Coast evacuees. These are demands worth fighting for.
There are problems with the march. Initially, Black gays and lesbians were to be more involved in the organizing of the march but unfortunately there has been some homophobic gay baiting. If there has ever been a time for solidarity it is now and that’s what the organizers need to understand. Nonetheless, the march has now taken on increased significance and importance given the developments in the Gulf region.
The ongoing crisis, as a result of the hurricane, has only begun to bring the issues afflicting working class and poor African Americans to the table. We will need a broad, multi-racial and independent movement to actually be able to do something about them.
KEEANGA-YAMAHTTA TAYLOR, based in Chicago, is author of Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs: Racism in America Today for the International Socialist Review. She can be contacted at keeanga’firstname.lastname@example.org