By Dan Rather
Host, ‘Dan Rather Presents’
As I watched with a sickening sense of deja vu the images coming out of Ferguson, Missouri this week, I couldn’t help but come to this conclusion: we have allowed a pernicious historical revisionism to undermine the legacy of the civil rights movement.
A half century ago, after covering datelines like Birmingham, Alabama and Oxford, Mississippi and men like Dr. Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers, I came to Washington as the CBS News White House Correspondent to report on the Johnson administration. Some of the successes from the front lines in the civil rights struggle I had covered as a field reporter were just being codified into groundbreaking legislation — the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. If you had asked me then what America would look like in 50 years, namely now in our present time, there were two visions I would never have believed. I never would have dreamed that we would elect an African American president. That seemed a leap forward that would take at least a century. On the other hand, I didn’t think we would see voting rights rolled back, de facto school resegregation in much of the nation, and scenes like we saw this week of an almost all-white police force in a majority African American town facing off against peaceful marchers in military-style gear and heavy weaponry… But both President Obama and Ferguson, Missouri are the realities of race in 21st Century America.
I have wondered the last few days what Dr. King and his fellow leaders would have made of a nation of such seeming contradictions. I would never have the audacity to attempt to speak for Dr. King, but I think he would challenge us by saying something like, “you have achieved much but you only focused on half of my message.”
The way the civil rights movement largely lives in our national consciousness is that it was all about race. But that is only part of the story. It was as much about the powerful and the powerless. The rich and the poor. Those who have opportunity and those of whom the circumstances of birth allowed for very little reason for hope. In short, it is about true equality of opportunity for ALL Americans, or as close as is humanly possible to come to that.
I would respectfully suggest that we focus at looking at Ferguson, Missouri through a broader prism of civil rights. We don’t really know everything that took place during that tragic and fateful encounter between a young, unarmed black man and the police. Indeed that is part of the frustration. There needs to be a full and impartial investigation with deliberate speed. Yes, you have to see the scenes from Ferguson in the lens of race. The pictures and video capture well the differences in skin color between those marching and those holding the guns. But that is not the only divide. If somehow there was a camera that could capture life stories, you would see other lines of partition between those who hold the power in Ferguson and many of those marching. You would see divisions along economic lines, educational opportunities, access to health care, and so many others. We can and should debate policy in this country but we should not debate the facts of so much inequality. So debate the role of unions, but don’t debate that many workers are suffering with low pay and poor working conditions. Debate the role of charter schools and the Common Core, but do not debate whether there is inequality in our education system. Debate how to best deal with our immigration problems, but do not debate that millions of men, women, and children are living in the shadows amongst us.
Addressing these economic and social ills, which disproportionately affect communities of color, must be just as much a part of Dr. King’s legacy as racial equality. We remember and laud the march on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech, but at the time of Dr. King’s assassination, he was leading what was known as the “Poor Person’s Campaign.” He described it as “the beginning of a new co-operation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity.” (Emphasis mine).
Dr. King was vague about how he would have the country accomplish this. And whatever proposed solutions from that time would likely be dated today. That’s not the point. Ultimately civil rights is not a black-and-white issue, literally or figuratively. It’s about liberty and justice for all. With Ferguson, there are worthy discussions about race in America, and whether the police are too militarized. Yet we must see that even these important topics fit into a larger narrative. This nation has perilous fault lines between its citizens. Race is part of the story, but so too are questions of economic and social justice. Dr. King saw these divisions and worried about them. We must as well, if we care, really care, about what is to become of our country.