Do Americans, even in anxious times, prefer an optimistic leader or an angry one?
Last week, I had the good fortune of attending the 50th anniversary reunion of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
The group, widely viewed as the young people’s arm of the civil rights movement, was formed when college students from across the South gathered at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., on April 15, 1960.
A couple of thousand people attended the reunion conference, which was also held in Raleigh. Some of the icons, black and white, of the original organization came, as did lots of young people trying to understand their history and anxious to figure out how to make some history of their own.
There was a whole of love and camaraderie in the air. Yet the gathering wasn’t just about singing old songs, telling old stories and seeing old friends.
Singing legend and civil rights veteran Harry Belafonte kicked aside nostalgia, telling the crowd, “We all know what was, and how well we did it. The question is, ‘Who is talking about what is, and how badly we are doing it now?’ Where is our voice? Why are we so soft?”
He expressed disappointment in President Obama’s agenda, which he said included propping up banks in a time of economic crisis.
“Yes, I’m proud that Barack Obama is president,” he said, but “I find nothing that speaks to the issue of the poor. I find nothing that speaks to the issue of the disenfranchised. I find a lot of people rushing for cover any time you criticize Barack Obama.”
Attorney General Eric Holder attended the commemoration and acknowledged, “There is still work to be done.” And he vowed: “This Justice Department will be about that work.”
John Lewis, former SNCC chairman and now a Georgia congressman, brought a crowd of several hundred to their feet as he called out to former SNCC colleagues in the audience. And he moved the audience to tears as he paused to thank James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, three civil rights workers killed in the summer of 1964 as they headed to investigate the burning of a black church in Mississippi.
Lewis called Obama’s election not the realization of what he and others had fought for, but only “a down payment.” He urged his SNCC colleagues to speak out against continuing injustices. “You’ve gone through the worst,” he told the group. “You’ve been thrown in jail, you’ve been beaten. What can anyone do to you now? Make some noise.”
Singer and civil rights activist Bernice Johnson Reagon also appealed to the many young people who came to the conference. “There are still wars that need to be challenged,” she told them, adding that “war has never fixed anything.” And she reminded us all that movements are never just one person’s story or one person’s solo. ”Freedom songs were sung by many voices together,” she said.
We need a new progressive movement, and a new young people’s arm of it, just like SNCC, to oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to focus on “the least of these,” whether in Haiti or the ghettos of America, where poverty continues to lead young people to crime, violence, political disenfranchisement and death.
We still need to sing with many voices together — and loudly.
Kevin Alexander Gray is the author of the recently published books “Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics” and “The Decline of Black Politics: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama.” He can be reached at email@example.com.