2007-02-23 / Columnists

Meeks Message From Capitol Hill

Honoring Black History And Each Other
Commentary From The Desk Of Congressman Gregory Meeks

GREGORY MeeKS African Americans and America have come a long way since 1926 when Carter G. Woodson first conceived of Negro History Week. The last fifty years or so witnessed Brown v Board of Education overturn the "separate but equal" system of apartheid-like segregation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 open the way to unprecedented Black participation in the public and private sectors, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 transform the nation's political landscape.

The body in which I serve only had three African American members when the Voting Rights Act was passed; the Senate didn't have any Blacks. None of the three Black members of the House of Representatives were from the South where the majority of African Americans lived just as they do today. When the 110th Congress convened last month it had 43 African American members; more than half were from the South.

Parallel breakthroughs surround us: The two head coaches in the 2007 Super Bowl are African American, as are the CEOs of Time-Warner, Morgan Stanley, American Express, the governor of Massachusetts, the president of Brown University, and the lieutenant governor of New York State. Oprah Winfrey is the most influential media personality on the planet. "Dreamgirls," a movie with a mainly Black cast, garnered eight Academy Award nominations.

Despite great progress, we have to acknowledge that not all of the motion within the Black community is headed forward. I am particularly troubled by dynamics that ignore or reject the rich and noble lessons from the historic struggle of African Americans for racial justice, equal opportunity and inclusion; namely, that nearly four centuries of relentless struggle and irrepressible achievement came principally through self-organization, education, group solidarity, coalition-building, and non-violence.

The truth is, with the justified exception of the slave revolts and the Civil War, the historic gains of Black Americans - whether through the Underground Railroad, Reconstruction, court decisions, legislation, executive orders, anti-discrimination regulations, government initiatives, or the ballot box - would have been improbable, if not impossible, had Blacks en masse turned to violence.

Non-violence enabled black to become the conscience of the nation and mobilize the support of the nation.

Yet, today, far too many young Blacks have abandoned education as a method and means of individual and collective empowerment. Perhaps worse, far too many individuals within all generations resort to violence - not in a misguided attempt to achieve lofty political goals - but as a method and means of dealing with each other.

Across communities, Black and other New Yorkers were right to protest the police shooting of an unarmed Sean Bell and his two companions. It should be a source of pride and inspiration to all of us that for their hurt and anger, not once have Sean Bell's fiancé, family, minister, friends, or the two young men who survived the hail of 50 bullets, called for violence. Not once.

Yet, that very weekend and virtually every week or weekend since that shooting, Blacks - mainly young Black males - have senselessly wounded and killed each other in some neighborhood in our city.

Shootings and shooting deaths have occurred with frightening regularity here in the Sixth Congressional District. But, with few exceptions, there have been no protests organized or even widespread expressions of outrage this killing frenzy deserves. What we see instead are the makeshift sidewalk memorials left by brokenhearted families and friends.

Part of the problem is that from the earliest grades public schools have failed many of our children. Many schools are so dysfunctional and discouraging that by their teenage years many young people have simply "disconnected," to use the term coined by a Community Service Society study.

This reaction is understandable but not acceptable. It can't be said that today's black youth have it harder than slaves who were severely punished for learning to read.

For most slaves, education was forbidden. But, many did learn to read - most notably, Frederick Douglass. The stakes are much higher today when education is absolutely indispensable for successfully competing in the global economy.

Another part of the problem is that many disconnected youth become connected with the streets, crime, drugs, and guns.The availability of guns in our society is truly astounding. There are an estimated 250 million guns in circulation. While we should be supportive of efforts of the policy and the mayor to get guns off the streets, even if they are successful, we would still be left to wrestle with the following questions: How did it comes to pass that so many Americans, particularly young men in the Black community, feel completely justified in using a gun to settle disputes? Why has life come to be so disrespected by so many young Americans who complain about a lack of respect (being "dissed")?

Gun control measures may limit the availability of guns - and that would be a great accomplishment - but fundamentally can't answer these questions. The challenge of honoring Black History Month and each other is linked to the challenge of changing this mentality.

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