ROLAND S. MARTIN: Agitate, Agitate, Agitate!

by Roland S. Martin
via Uptown Magazine

Hello, post–Civil Rights Movement babies! Has America gotten your attention now?

The collective outrage that spread all over the nation in response to the “not guilty” verdict of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin in July compounded what has been a tumultuous year for African-Americans. A month earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a key component of the Voting Rights Act, which has played an important role in African-Americans being able to fully participate in the electoral process, and beat back attempts to limit the influence of black voters in states governed by the VRA.

Those troubles are financial as well. There’s no denying that the debilitating recession and subsequent sluggish economic recovery have also taken their toll on black America. In June, our already highest unemployment rate in the country officially rose to 13.7 percent. Plus, we are still reeling from the foreclosure crisis of 2008. Appearing on Washington Watch, my TV One Sunday political forum, now Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren shared that an astounding 53 percent of black wealth was wiped out by foreclosures. Even more sobering, she said it would take as long as two generations to get just that money back.

Most Americans have their wealth tied up in their homes, but that is especially true for African-Americans. How has the wealth gap hurt black folks? A study by Brandeis University’s Institute on Assets and Social Policy concluded that between 1984 and 2007, the wealth gap between whites and blacks has quadrupled, with white families possessing $100,000 in median financial assets compared to just $5,000 for African-Americans. No, that is not a typo. There is a $95,000 gap between whites and blacks in financial assets.

I can go on and on citing similar gaps in education, health and other categories, and you might very well conclude that the state of black America in 2013 might indeed be worse than it was for black folks when the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was held on August 28, 1963. While I certainly understand that sentiment, it’s not easy for me to accept that conclusion or act as if all hope has been lost.

African-Americans have made considerable advancements in many sectors of American life. In the corporate arena, Ursula Burns, Ken Chenault and Don Thompson, who are all CEOs, respectively of Xerox, American Express and McDonald’s, are bright stars. In pro football, it was once impossible to see blacks front and center. Today, it’s not at all uncommon for black quarterbacks to lead their teams to victory, and, oftentimes, with black coaches on the sidelines. If we stroll through the political corridors of city halls, county commissioners’ courts, state legislatures and Congress, black elected officials are numerous. And, of course, no one can underestimate the progress we have shown as a nation in twice electing our first African-American president, Barack Hussein Obama.

As a community, we showed tremendous resolve in reelecting Obama in 2012, in the face of GOP legislatures’ attempts to pass oppressive voter suppression laws, by organizing and mobilizing like we hadn’t done in decades. Not only did we defeat them, but even on election night, as Ohio and Florida were called for President Obama, chants of “hold the line!” went up, with no one moving amidst rain and cold in many areas.

Yet, even with this strong showing, I contend the fundamental problem over the past 50 years has been our unwillingness to do what brought about those gains in the first place: fight, fight, fight. Right before his death, Frederick Douglass said the mission of black folks should be to “agitate! agitate! agitate!” Why, you ask? Because “power concedes nothing without a demand.”

A. Philip Randolph, who organized the legendary black labor union Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and co-organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, may be frequently overlooked in the annals of black history, but his profound comments on what it takes for black advancement still ring true today.

“At the banquet table of nature there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold. If you can’t take anything, you won’t get anything; and if you can’t hold anything, you won’t keep anything. And you can’t take anything without organization.”

The most fundamental key to black advancement has been our ability to organize effectively to agitate for social change. But, unfortunately, we have grown much too complacent, with subsequent generations deciding that such approaches are too “old school.” Instead, they have advocated a more “inside game” approach, a view that has been detrimental to black progress, for we have always achieved results by having black folks on the inside AND outside. The inside folks are always there to warn those in power that unless our demands are met, those on the outside will apply maximum pressure.

Those lessons have not been lost on Hispanic/ Latino and LGBT activists. It’s been amazing to see them successfully use the playbook that black folks perfected to get what they want and need for their communities. They haven’t been placated with empty promises either. Instead, they’ve pushed, prodded, demanded, organized and mobilized. In other words, they’ve agitated.

We can spend precious time and space lamenting black America’s stalled progress, or we can use what we see happening today as an opportunity to rekindle the fire in the belly that has always driven us. As we speak, the tremendous anger, bitterness, rage and fury over Zimmerman being found “not guilty” of the murder of Trayvon Martin lingers. But instead of just being mad and upset, this generation has begun channeling that outrage into a game plan fully focused on mobilizing and organizing for change.

Seeing the young folks in Florida who call themselves the Dream Defenders occupy the state capitol, demanding action against the Stand Your Ground law in July is very encouraging. In many ways, they are the 21st-century version of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a group that led some of the most successful campaigns during the 1960s. And they are not alone: There are numerous other grassroots organizations also hell bent on demanding changes to the criminal justice system, education, black-on-black crime and other vital areas of interest to black America.

In order for us to continue our forward progress, it will take a whole lot more of that. It will take a renewed spirit to fight those who think enough has been done for black folks in America. It will take a new generation to stand as Mississippi freedom fighter Fannie Lou Hamer did and say, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.” It’s going to take young black folks who support the music of today’s hip-hop artists to demand they get off the sidelines of commercialism and join the battle for freedom and equality. Like Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Dick Gregory and so many others before them, all of them need to become modern-day entertainment warriors.

Black entrepreneurs will have to stop wanting to only benefit from the movement and also fund the movement. Corporate America, labor unions, and, yes, white liberal/progressive benefactors, can’t be depended upon to make this happen. We need today’s black business leaders to do as A.G. Gaston, John H. Johnson and so many others did and provide the much needed resources to enable change.

Last but not least, we all need to understand that the fight for equality is not a short-term proposition. We must see it through in the short-, mid- and long-term stages. That means having the intestinal fortitude to see that progress is made in incremental steps.

Again, I’m not interested in lamenting what gains have been lost or crying about how bad things have gotten. It’s time for us to realize that our battles today are not just about us. They’re about ensuring the proper future for our children and future generations. And if fighting for your kid’s kids isn’t enough to motivate you, then nothing will.

Roland S. Martin is host and managing editor of TV One Cable Network’s new morning show, News One Now. He’s also a senior analyst for The Tom Joyner Morning Show and a syndicated columnist with Creators Syndicate. He spent six years as a contributor for CNN.