- The Washington Times - Monday, February 13, 2006

The Valentine’s Day invitation for tonight is to honor Dorothy I. Height, chairwoman of the National Council of Negro Women, as “a primary leader, shero, matriarch and ‘sweetheart’ of the struggle for civil and human rights, particularly for African-American women.”

Hosts of the free love feast — from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the NCNW headquarters at 633 Pennsylvania Ave. NW — are members of the Stand Up for Democracy in D.C. Coalition and the D.C. Black History Celebration Committee.

Ms. Height is being honored a week after she spoke at the loving Southern funeral service for another civil rights maven, Coretta Scott King.

With these commemorations coming for passing or aging giants of the civil rights movement, larger questions are being raised about the movement itself.

Is it passing along with its icons?

“It’s kind of all right that these people fade from the scene, because you have to understand that they didn’t do what they did for the movement to stay in that mode — of marching in the streets for social change — for 50 years,” said Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political science professor. “They wanted it to find its way into the necessary institutions of American society.”

The eloquent Mr. Walters said he tries to dissuade the conversation about the civil rights movement’s vitality because “we shouldn’t let the average American off the hook that easily.” Besides, he said, “That’s too shortsighted.”

His research, for example, showed that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2003 was working to help whites by a 2-1 margin with discrimination cases involving HIV/AIDS patients, people with disabilities and women seeking equal pay, along with race-based cases.

“To me, that manifestation shows how the civil rights movement can serve an entire society,” he said.

“I don’t think the civil rights movement is going to pass any time soon. However, we’ve used a kind of shorthand to refer to it — Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta, Rosa Parks.

“But the real face of the civil rights movement is the investment of millions of people, black and white, who believe in the mission of social justice and all kinds of activities that are geared to achieve it,” he said.

The author of several books — his latest, “White Nationalism, Black Interests: Conservative Public Policy and the Black Community” — Mr. Walters added that all sorts of freedom movements around the globe, from Poland to China to Latin America, were inspired by the black American civil rights movement.

“America is the only one who has put [civil rights] in a tiny box,” he said.

“It’s not just a black struggle. Each individual should make use of the tools and values of the civil rights movement to make them and society whole,” he said. Earlier this month, in an Associated Press article about the status of the civil rights movement, Mr. Walters said he was “suspicious of commemorations.”

“In some quarters, there’s a feeling that the movement has passed its course. That’s the reaction of the younger generation mostly, the post-civil-rights generation,” he said.

Michael Fauntroy, a public-policy professor at George Mason University, agrees.

“We’re in a good place and a bad place,” said the author of the forthcoming book “Afros and Elephants: Republicans and the Black Vote.” “The traditional civil rights movement that was led mostly by religious leaders and characterized by marches and efforts to change public policy doesn’t exist as we knew it. It’s much more diffused,” said Mr. Fauntroy, 39, the nephew of Walter Fauntroy, the District’s former delegate to the House of Representatives.

“My generation thinks marching is not cool,” he said. And, “it’s in vogue to criticize the movement because there are no better alternatives.” However, he said it is unfair to use “2006 glasses” to judge the elders’ accomplishments that were “nothing short of a miracle” in their time.

His generation does not have to focus on access to public accommodations or uprooting to get jobs or educational opportunities. However, he said blacks still face discrimination such as getting passed over for promotions or paying more for mortgages.

“Economic issues still need to be addressed, and I don’t see that [happening] anywhere,” Mr. Fauntroy said. “A lot of folks are not doing as well as they think they are.” Hurricane Katrina showed that “there may be a need for a new movement that is focused on making sure that governmental resources are used for important purposes as needed.”

Anise Jenkins of the D.C. Coalition said, “It’s up to this generation to make the same commitment.” She noted that the ninetysomething Ms. Height still goes to work every day.

“The movement is still alive and well,” Ms. Jenkins said. “We may see a changing of the guard, but the torch is being accepted as it is being passed.” However, Ms. Jenkins said that given what happened with Hurricane Katrina and the gentrification of D.C. neighborhoods, the movement’s focus has to change to “an economic and spiritual fight.”

“People have to believe that they have the power, the will and the right to make a difference,” she said. “It’s hard to think about statehood and voting rights when you can’t pay the rent.” Further, “We have to connect the dots between civil rights and economic rights and spiritual upliftment — not religious, but a feeling of strength and belief in these goals.”

She sees a void and a need for strong, focused organizations. Mrs. King and others “had strong organizations to support their individual actions.” She warns that “we are in danger of dropping the ball if we don’t make the same commitment and are willing to make the same sacrifices that [civil rights leaders] made of their lives and their livelihoods to make things happen.”

As Mr. Walters poignantly reminds us, “the question of rights is always a pregnant question in a democratic society.”

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