This time it will be different.
In the 1960s civil rights movement, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., a handful of African American lawyers and community leaders mobilized tens of thousands to march to end racial segregation and discrimination. They struggled for funding and received little media attention until reports of racial violence in the South got the nation’s attention.
What is brewing today has the potential and promise to be more powerful.
Why? Because since the 1960s a seismic shift has occurred in the wealth and visibility of African American celebrities, giving them the financial and political resources to ensure their voices are heard and creating a force for racial justice that never before existed in this country.
Today, Oprah and Bob Johnson own television networks. African American actors, musicians and athletes make tens of millions of dollars annually. And many of these wealthy, influential African Americans are done with prayer vigils and marches. Inspired by the impact of the University of Missouri football team’s boycott threat, such prominent figures as Shonda Rimes, Michael Jordan, Serena Williams and Carmelo Anthony are demanding change.
Last fall, University of Missouri students launched weeks of protests against the school’s handling of racial tensions. Amid complaints officials had done too little to address racism and a series of ugly incidents on campus, a dozen black football players issued a sharp ultimatum: The chancellor resigns or we won’t play. A boycott of the following Saturday’s game could have cost the school $1 million.
Within days, the chancellor of the University’s main Columbia campus and the University of Missouri system president resigned.
In his speech accepting a humanitarian award at the June BET Awards show, Jesse Williams electrified the audience with a call for collective action to his fellow actors, athletes and musicians. “We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called ‘whiteness’ uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil – black gold!” the Grey’s Anatomy star said. A system “built to divide and impoverish us and destroy us cannot stand,” he said, “if we do.”
New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony called on athletes to demand change, posting a message on Instagram where he cited the efforts of Muhammed Ali, Malcolm X and others who fought for civil rights. He said the time for marches and prayer vigils was over. In recent weeks, Michael Jordan, the first billionaire athlete, magnified the call, donating a total of $7 million to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Institute for Community-Police Relations and the National Museum of African American History & Culture.
Threats of economic boycotts, public shaming and inspiring advocacy by celebrities promise to mobilize and strengthen the racial justice movement. Boycotts and public shaming are powerful tools, something North Carolinians know all about, given the economic and cultural impact of HB2.
What are we white people waiting for? We need to own our role in creating the problem. We must recognize our hypocrisy in condemning protestors’ violence when our hands are bloody. It is arrogant to believe we have all the answers. Only by embracing them as partners can we create a brighter future and a way forward. We must follow the lead of this new generation of African American leaders – to listen, apologize and support the changes/reforms that will ultimately make our communities healthier and safer for everyone.
Chris McLeod is president of Giving Matters, Inc. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.