The future worries U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver.
The Texas native and United Methodist Church pastor marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Cleaver then advanced to the next phase of the civil rights movement, winning a Kansas City Council seat and later became the city’s first black mayor before winning a seat in Congress.
But he worries that the inseparable bond African-Americans had to the civil rights struggle is weakening with each new generation. When he goes to schools, some students are unable to remember King’s full name.
They don’t know other civil rights giants. “The Lord blessed me to have had the opportunity to consider these guys my spiritual and in some ways political mentors,” Cleaver said.
“They gave everything, including their lives,” Cleaver said. “I don’t think a lot of African-Americans have any idea what people went through so they could go to Harvard, Yale and even colleges in the Kansas City area. I’m weary over the possible lack of remembrance.”
Too many African-Americans now think their wit and charm alone elevated them without realizing that blacks have always been smart and talented. Jim Crow-era racism and violence kept them from today’s civil rights movement’s gifts of opportunity and success.
“But for the civil rights movement, we wouldn’t have Barack Obama at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.,” Cleaver said. “But for black folks who staged sit-ins in segregated lunch counters and restaurants, we wouldn’t be able to eat lunch at Bristols.’’
To ensure civil rights gains through 2063, black parents and all schools should teach black history, said Cleaver, who joins others for this column series looking at 50 years of civil rights advances while sharing a vision for the next half-century.
He said African-Americans must learn from Jews and Texas. Jewish people don’t want their children to forget the subjugation and the Holocaust so that neither recurs. Students in Texas schools must learn Texas history.
“My fear is when you forget, you repeat,” Cleaver said.
Black history would dispel misinformation and stereotypes about African-Americans and even offset the Supreme Court last month striking down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, requiring some states to get Justice Department approval for changes that might affect elections. The truth about African-Americans would enable civil rights advances to grow in the next 50 years.
“Isolated from information, African-Americans are ensured a place in a lesser, separate society,” Cleaver said.
Like King, today’s leaders also must turn the anger, frustration and hopelessness of poor people of color into education and opportunity. Cleaver compared Obama to Jackie Robinson because of Obama’s temperance and ability to succeed despite the hate he faces. But Cleaver worries that Obama may be the last black president if the country is unable to rein in a growing anger.
“There is only one letter difference between anger and danger,” Cleaver said. “We’re moving toward danger.”
He said in the next 50 years African-Americans must end the anger, violence, self-defeating behavior and work together to build wealth. The civil rights movement enabled the election of hundreds of black mayors, governors, legislators in statehouses and Congress.
But there should be more chief executives of businesses, blacks seated on corporate boards and major black-owned companies. In the next 50 years, Cleaver said such civil rights advances should be “no big deal.”
That would fulfill King’s dream. But first, Cleaver said, we must overcome the bigotry, misinformation and anger that hold us back.