This year marks the 50th anniversary of many civil rights accomplishments in the United States. But even then, leaders of the movement knew the struggle would continue. The recent high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of police have galvanized a new generation of civil rights leaders. In the second of our two special reports, we bring two activists together, one from the old guard and one from the new.
When Harry Belafonte looks at Phillip Agnew, he sees his own political DNA will live on long after he’s gone.r/songwriters in history. Now 87, Belafonte is an advocate for a number of humanitarian causes and has taken on juvenile justice issues as a celebrity ambassador for the American Civil Liberties Union. Last year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored his efforts, awarding him an Oscar statuette.
Belafonte recognizes that his mission is nearing its end, but says the legacy he helped create is in good hands as young civil rights champions such as Agnew step up. In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012, Agnew co-founded Dream Defenders, a youth-led social justice organization, and has become one of the most prominent leaders in the #BlackLivesMatter campaign.
The two men sat down together last month to discuss their activist roots, the roles poverty and oppression have played in their lives and the future of social change. Their conversation has been condensed for length and clarity.
Bridging the generation gap
Belafonte: For a long time, many people have been asking, “What has happened to our youth?” and “Where is the next generation going?” For a lot of people that has been answered by suggesting young people are indifferent, that they are directionless. Nothing seems to motivate them. With the murder of young Trayvon Martin and your response to that experience, and the development of Dream Defenders, I think you instantly filled a space.
One of the things that I enjoy in this process is the fact that the community of young people in the resistance movement has begun to look very carefully at their history – at what preceded them. For those of us who are still alive and still have some of that history in our DNA, we’ve been called upon. So for us to be able to be of service where young people are going now is a kind of a wonderful circle for me. Have you found that my generation has been responsive to you to, to get what you need?
Agnew: Yes and no. I think you’re an example of someone from a previous generation reaching out and reaching back to young people. But I think actually the ball was dropped in between, so the generation immediately preceding ours didn’t really [get as much help]. So during the civil rights movement, the dominant aim and desire eventually moved toward integration. And with integration came assimilation, so the generation that followed you all, I believe, began to reap the rewards of the fights of the civil rights movement. I think the lessons that we’ve learned have almost been unsaid; it’s that the goals of the civil rights movement have yet to be fully met.
Belafonte: I’m struck by your observation that integration was the target for the movement that we experienced in the 1950s, ’60s. But integration, I think that’s a little misunderstood. We [were] looking to integrate into America, whether it was racial integration, economic integration or some type of social integration. It was that we knew that if we were not part of the fabric of what this nation professed to be about, that if we didn’t have the right to vote, that if we didn’t have the right to attend institutions of our choice for learning, that if we didn’t have a chance to become a bigger part of the American dream that was, for us, also a dream that we would never really truly touch the heartbeat of what America was about. This was about a bigger integration. But it’s always been narrowed down to just the issue of race specifically.
When black people got the right to vote totally in this country, it was not just the right to vote as a mechanical act. How do you select the individuals that are going to represent us? The only ones who were visible enough for them to say, “We can trust this individual, or that individual” are all the personalities that emerged from the civil rights movement…That left a void and in that void was where everybody began to say, “What’s happened to our young?” Well, they were no longer being instructed when the leadership went off on another mission.
Agnew: After the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and Dr. King’s final crusade over the last years of his life was to shift economic policies. And to be able to sit at a lunch counter next to a white man, what’s the use of it if you can’t afford to buy anything once you’re there? I believe that was the most dangerous part of Dr. King’s legacy and what he was trying to leave to the next generation. Do you think it’s time that all of us begin to have a front-facing, very outward indictment of capitalism and to embrace that a whole lot more in the way that we talk about what we want to see?
Belafonte: I think the indictment of capitalism is not a new theme for our current history. We’ve always been talking about economic parity. It’s always about owning resources and exploiting resources that nourishes the human existence on a level playing field. What black people have always wanted was not that we were rushing to become racially integrated. That was not really what the mission was about. But the specific target was to shape the economic paradigm.
Agnew: My first experience ever with activism was in college, and it was the murder of a young man namedMartin Lee Anderson. He was 14 years old. He was killed in a boot camp in Dade County, Florida.