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King's Legacy Is at Risk : Earl Ofari Hutchinson calls for a concerted effort to reverse the backward movement.

January 15, 1995|Earl Ofari Hutchinson | Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a sociologist who has spent 22 years lecturing and writing about the black experience in America. He is the author of five books, the most recent of which is titled "The Assassination of the Black Male Image." He is also a frequent opinion-piece contributor to many newspapers and magazines. Last week, he spoke at the invitation of the black staff and faculty of USC at a celebration of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He lives in Los Angeles and was interviewed by Karen E. Klein

I think it's very important to keep the mission and the mandate of Dr. Martin Luther King alive today.

Dr. King and the civil rights movement of the 1960s created a moral climate in this country and a consensus that racial, social and economic injustice had no place in the tapestry of American society.

The movement ended legal segregation, it spotlighted the problems of poverty, war, violence, a bloated military budget and gender discrimination. And the civil rights movement influenced many other movements, such as the women's movement, the gay rights movement, the Latino movement and the Native American movement.

Many times, we think of the civil rights movement as strictly domestic. But it was not. It had worldwide influence, from Nelson Mandela to the liberation priests of Latin America to European student movements and anti-colonial movements in Asia and Africa. The world is still feeling the effect of the civil rights movement in America.

But 30 years later, Dr. King's dream and legacy are unfinished, and the task is unfulfilled.

I believe that if Dr. King was alive today, he'd be one of the first to raise his voice in protest at what's going on in this country. I see a turning back of the clock on equality and I see forces of mean-spiritedness on the part of those who want to disenfranchise and alienate people of color and people in poverty.

Dr. King, I think, would also be outraged about some of the things he would see in America's inner cities: the high murder rate among young African Americans, the poverty, the lack of job development, the poor quality of education.

When he was alive, he called for the American corporate structure to make room for people of color, for political forces to reorient the budget to help people in poverty and for massive increases in federal spending on social programs, jobs and education.

What's happening today is the opposite of what he advocated. We're retrenching and going back to retroactive social and economic policies.

The political shift in Washington is going to make people more desperate, especially poor people, and it is going to increase their numbers. Judging from their rhetoric, the new political leaders are not going to do anything to strengthen laws against racial violence and discrimination.

In fact, I think we will see the opposite effect: a backlash on the poor and on people of color. People are quickly going to realize that the Contract with America is not a contract that poor people or people of color have any stake in.

The effect will be that people will retreat. They will see that, unlike the '60s, government is not going to be a friend or an ally. It will not provide redress of racial grievances, health education or job development. So people are going to realize that they'll have to fall back on their own resources and their own energies.

And that may not be all bad.

What we need today is a concerted effort on the part of African Americans, people of color and people of good will to stop this backward movement.

The problem is that there has been a fragmentation in the civil rights movement. Some of the goals of the movement were met, such as the end of legal segregation. The doors of universities, corporations and government did open for some people of color.

That made some African Americans feel that the battle was over, the struggle was over, we made it, we finally got our piece of the American pie and we don't have to battle any more.

There is also a lack of leadership in black America. In the 1960s, we had men and women of gigantic stature--like Dr. King and Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad--of all political backgrounds. Today, we have fragmented leadership and no moral stature to really rally around for change.

Today, many whites are in collective denial. They believe that there is no racism anymore, or that it is only a minor nuisance. They think that if there's any failure among blacks or people of color, it's their own fault. They are saying, "Don't look to my tax dollars for help. The barriers have come down and if you don't take advantage of that, you're too lazy and stupid to do it."

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The media is part of the problem because it still panders to, reinforces and titillates racial stereotypes, especially about black men. The media would have us believe that all crime in America comes with a young black face.

On the other side, among blacks, there is often a collective paranoia. Many believe that all whites, or the majority of them, are racists, so we should expect nothing from them. There is a feeling that racism is all-present, that everybody's out to get us. There has developed a circle-the-wagons, siege mentality.

How can these two sides ever get together?

I am not discouraged. There is still dialogue going on. There are a number of people who can see both sides and talk to both sides.

It goes back to Martin Luther King. In 1955, in Montgomery, Ala., King didn't have people he could talk to. The sheriff, the mayors, the legislatures and the corporate structure were all lined up against him.

But still, he broke down that opposition and people broke through those barriers.

So the situation is not hopeless. We're going through a phase now that may be negative. But I believe that at some time saner heads will prevail and we'll see some dialogue and some breaking through these barriers that we face today.

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