In the msnbc original series ”Generation to Generation,” we take a side-by-side look at the work of civil rights leaders from the 1960s and their modern-day counterparts. This week, the series features Rep. John Lewis and Phil Agnew, and they answered questions from the msnbc.com community.
Rep. John Lewis has been representing Georgia since 1987. Prior to his days in Congress, Lewis was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and — along with Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, A. Phillip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young —he is considered part of the “Big Six,” the group of civil rights leaders who were largely responsible for ending legalized racial discrimination and segregation.
Agnew is embarking on a similar path as a leading civil rights organizer and the executive director of the Dream Defenders. The group played a major role in raising national awareness about the Trayvon Martin case and challenged Stand Your Ground laws by staging a 31-day sit-in in Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s office.
Take a look at highlights from the Q&A below.
Bernard R.W. Ragins: How do we get this generation to understand [that] the civil rights movement is an ongoing fight?
Agnew: Bernard, great question. There is no simple, singular answer to it however. At first glance, it elicits a number of follow up questions from me. What do we consider the “civil rights movement”? When did that “movement” begin? Is this a new movement—broader and more inclusive than the civil rights movement that we speak of?
I think we must first realize that we are all perpetually in a struggle for liberation, for dignity, for acknowledgement of our humanity. Our struggle today is connected to not only the “civil rights movement” but to the struggle of women for suffrage and equal rights in this country and abroad, to the struggle of immigrant families and farm workers for dignity and equality in this country. We are connected to the struggle of lesbian, gay, transgender folks fighting for true acknowledgement of their humanity, and we are connected to the liberation struggles of people fighting oppression and repression the world over.
When one looks at it in this context — a context that does not divide or isolate the struggle for equal rights by Black Americans throughout our time here, but looks at it as a continuation of the many long, arduous, ongoing rights movements — then it becomes much easier to show our generation that the fight continues. It may not be as evident in their daily walk, but if they look to Palestine, or South America, or to California, or Texas, the signs of movement and the “ongoing fight” are present and vibrant.
@JordanSeaberry: One of the biggest differences between organizing during the Freedom Summer and today is the prevalence of the internet, and massive surveillance — do the traditional organizing models still work in these new conditions?
Lewis: If you research movement history, you will find that there was also intense surveillance of the Civil Rights Movement — phones were tapped, hotel rooms were bugged, false information was floated, infiltrators were planted inside most civil rights organizations, and there was collusion between the FBI and local police departments. Terrorism and violence were used to strike fear in the hearts of people. In Birmingham, for example, the comings and goings of black families and white sympathizers were spied upon by members of the Ku Klux Klan. And when people took action — like registering to vote, fraternizing with white friends, or engaging in activism — persistent threatening phone calls were made to their homes and homemade explosives were left under their houses. There were more than 80 bombings in Birmingham during that period and most were never prosecuted.
We were aware that we were being watched, but we made a decision that surveillance would not sway our commitment to do what we knew was right. We were prepared to give our lives if necessary, to pay the ultimate price, and that freed us. That’s how much we believed in the truth of human unity. So I would say that the activists of today may face different technology, but the challenges are the same. There are always forces that want to monitor and control the actions of people. But when people decide they want to be free, when they decide they are committed to a cause that is more important to them than their own comfort and their own security, they will find creative means to tackle every obstacle, and they will struggle regardless of the cost to make those dreams a reality.
Elvree Smith: I have followed the civil rights movement for quite some time and would like to know if the Dream Defenders have any plans or sit-ins planned to go to Washington, D.C. I think it would be a great movement to do a sit-in in front of the congressional building to get this congress to pay back the American taxpayer for doing nothing.
Agnew: Encouragement like this helps to fuel us when nothing else makes sense. At the moment, we have no plans to expand to D.C. I assume you were asking whether we would have a chapter there soon? If so, then the short answer is: “not yet.” We believe that we must do our work here in Florida and have aligned with groups around the country to have national impact through our local work — groups like: The Freedom Side, the Ohio Students Association, the Black Youth Project 100, United We Dream, Get Equal, Mississippi One Voice, and many others have come together to chart a new course for the future of our country and we are proud to be aligned with them.
We have some plans for Florida though: Stay tuned. We believe that a state that incarcerates children at record numbers; under-educates a generation of youth; destroys the environment; is a testing state for dangerous, racist NRA legislation; privatizes a majority of its prisons; and suppresses the vote deserves to confront these truths in the most public of ways.
Marley12: How to fix the extreme imbalance of resources (teachers, programs, opportunity) in black vs. white public schools?
Agnew: We must first solve the property tax-school funding dilemma. That is, the higher the property taxes in an area, the more resources their schools have. This seemingly race-neutral policy in actuality has debilitating racial effects. It is the recipe for disproportionate resource allocation in our schools. This is intentional and cripples the ability of schools in poorer areas to adequately educate and inspire it’s students (or teachers for that matter).
There are a number of solutions: Our friends in Mississippi (“Better Schools, Better Jobs”) are working on a campaign to mandate that the State of Mississippi fully funds education. That is, taking the burden and the scapegoat away from the property tax algorithm and putting the oneness on the state to back up its rhetoric on improving education outcomes.
I do not think a long-term, viable option is charter schools, however. That’s a discussion for another time, though.
BackwardNever: Do you believe domestic pressures have stifled this degree of courage and willingness by contemporary black leaders?
Lewis: I think many African-American leaders do speak out about international problems. Many members of the Congressional Black Caucus, for example, are deeply concerned about international problems in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. They write legislation regarding these issues, go on humanitarian missions, and do what they can to support foreign efforts. One such person, whom you may never heard of was the late Rep. Donald Payne from New Jersey, who traveled the highways and byways of many nations around the world, met with foreign leaders, but also was a friend to the people of many nations. He did a great deal for decades to reach out to people of other nations and to find ways this country could offer humanitarian support, but you may have never heard of him.
I, for example, have been arrested along with other African-American leaders five times as a member of Congress protesting apartheid in South Africa and against genocide in the Sudan. I think people may not be as aware of these kinds of actions because they are often not reported as extensively as other news. I also believe that people should not wait for “leaders” to take action. The people themselves have to stand up, speak up, and speak out for or against issues that matter to them. Leaders can only lead a willing and determined people. The people have a great opportunity and responsibility to make their voices heard. Their insistence and persistence empowers and emboldens “leaders” to take action.
Brandi Elizabeth Hudson: How do you think we can bridge the gap facing the two political parties when one is responsible for so much vitriol towards [President Obama]?
Lewis: The best way to bridge the gap between political parties is to vote. The people have to be engaged in the political process. They need to look beyond political rhetoric and campaign ads and discover what the people they elect truly stand for. They need to read, become informed, and know the issues. They need to make sure the people they elect are interested in public service instead of their own political ambition and divisive agendas. There are many politicians who want to bridge this gap, who want to do the work in congress to help people find jobs, educate their children, and live better lives. We need more of those kind of public servants walking the halls of congress. And when the people begin to elect those kinds of representatives, much more bipartisan work on behalf of the people of this nation will take place.
(This Q&A has been edited for clarity.)