Does America need a 21st-century civil rights movement for black people? According to Murray A. Fortner, we do. Fortner is chairman of the sociology/psychology department at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, Tex., and the author of “White Collars Black Necks: How Middle Class African Americans Successfully Failed the Children.”
Q: Dr. Fortner, you say the country is in “desperate need” of a 21st-century black movement. Why?
A: An excellent model for mass change for us was established in the 1960s. Black media, black colleges and black churches worked together with a common agenda for improving the conditions of our people, in particular our children. Perhaps it was because our backs were against the wall, or we still had an acute awareness of our history, but we were a people on a mission. Today, we are a group who believes in isolated programs, but there is no concerted effort to work together to save our children. At the core of the civil rights movement was improving conditions for our children. We have to get that back.
Q: We have a sitting president who is African American. We have black involvement in both political parties. Isn’t that civil rights progress?
A: That is more civil rite. It is not the overt that is the problem. It is the covert. Remember: There are drum majors and there are band directors. One is out front, but the other has real power. National politics have not affected pop culture, racism and other aspects of society that seem to impact black communities negatively.
Education, incarceration and other factors are issues that a movement can help improve. Real grass-roots movements involve local people. We seem not to want to get anything done unless it involves a black media person, celebrity, or some spokesperson manufactured by the media. It troubles me that we flock in great numbers to hear Dr. So-and-So, or television/radio news commentator So-and-So, but nothing comes out of the session. That’s not a grass-roots movement. That is an artificial turf moment.
Q: Dr. Fortner, you are also a writer, poet and musician. You say that music mogul Jay-Z and other hip-hop artists would be leaders in this new movement?
A: They must help to set a “new agenda” in which education returns as a salient feature. These rappers have to understand that they have the ears of the youth. Therefore, they have to expand their mission and their message. Social responsibility is not a political issue. It is a people issue. The Million Man March Moment worked because urban radio and hip-hop decided to flex.
If those rap moguls decide to get involved, we will see change. But we have to reach and teach them. We have to allow them to step out and step up. If these young men knew how much they are needed, I believe they would heed the call. But we have excluded them, and they focus on that which is irrelevant and temporary. And our children follow them like the Pied Piper. Social responsibility has to be the “B-side of the record.” I have faith that our fate is not sealed.
Q: You describe hip-hop as in its "young Malcolm X" stage. What do you mean?
A: If we were to personify “hip-hop,” it is in its adolescence. It has to grow and change as Malcolm did. Malcolm evolved from a thug to a scholar. If he had died young, he would have died a thug. We have to help and hope that hip-hop can change. Scholarship gives us hope.
Q: How would this movement address issues of class within black communities? What solutions would it offer black families for financial wholeness? How would this movement sustain black prosperity?
A: This is exactly what I write about in my book “White Collars Black Necks.” Earning money has nothing to do with how socially responsible one happens to be. It is not what you do from 8 to 5. It is what you do from 5 to 8. Too many successful African Americans are hung up on individual achievement and status.
They forget that their white collar is on a black neck. What happens with the few of us is not as important as what happens to far too many of us: our children. I am not successful until I know that I have done all that I can do to make America better for little boys and girls who look like me.
Q: What action steps would this movement take to overcome educational challenges facing black children?
A: It will take the collective efforts of urban radio, black churches, black colleges and grass-roots leaders. We must work to set a new agenda with a new set of priorities. Education for the sake of knowing who we are as a people, instead of education solely for the purpose of earning, is a start. The yearning to learn is how we earn a new respect for ourselves. We have to make something old new again.
Q: Churches played a critical role in the civil rights movement of the ’60s. Specifically, what role would churches play in the formation of a new black movement?
A: Black churches must have preachers who are willing to come from behind the podium. Along with the couples ministry and the outreach ministry there must also be a “civil rights” ministry, and the church must give specific duties to members to ensure that issues in our schools and other institutions are being addressed.
The church can bring the numbers and the attention. Black ministers can’t just perform their weekly “standup” on Sunday. They have to be willing to stand up for something Monday through Saturday. They can’t just focus on speaking like Dr. Martin Luther King; they have to want to work and be committed like Dr. Martin Luther King, the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, and their contemporaries. ...
I cringe when I watch young black children crushing each other for a pair of Air Jordans, but ... if we unite and stay focused, if we speak of action instead of settling for speeches that lead to very little motion, if Black people with a desire to teach who we really are stay the course, change will eventually come. Our young people will be rescued. Movements start slowly but can change permanently.