Historically Black Organizations Need to Step Up
The last two months have made it seem like racial tensions have reached an all-time high in America. From the massacre at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, to the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and the shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, the turmoil between Black Americans and law enforcement agencies has given a new meaning to the term “black and blue.”
Suffice it to say, this period has brought a lot of new faces, groups, and activism to the modern day civil rights movement. However, to many, the leaders and organizations of yesteryear have become nothing more than a footnote or “written statement” to the issues at hand, and their silence and seeming inaction is speaking volumes to the communities they are supposed to serve.
When we think about the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, several organizations always come to mind. The NAACP, National Urban League, and the NPHC (Black fraternities and sororities) were pivotal entities that not only led the charge at many of the marches, but also galvanized and helped mobilize the wider Black community for the fight that was ahead.
I often think of the picture of the leaders on the balcony in Memphis: Hosea Williams (Phi Beta Sigma), Martin Luther King, Jr. (Alpha Phi Alpha), Jesse Jackson (Omega Psi Phi) and Ralph Abernathy (Kappa Alpha Psi). Four of the most revered men of the movement representing four of the Black Greek fraternities all joined together in a fight for Black people. Sadly, moments like that have quickly become a distant memory, as new organizations have stepped in to lead the charge while these once revered groups have taken a backseat and remained mostly silent.
The issues we’ve fought for since the beginning of our existence in this country have never gone away. Every time Black Americans have won a battle, the system of white supremacy and institutionalized slavery has found a newer, better way to oppress us. From 3/5ths to whole persons, from segregation to integration, every time we have won a battle for our rights, we have watched other privileges stripped away as a reminder that we are never safe, and have never been free. Through it all, our Black organizations stood strong and served as strident agents for change. However, this cycle of violence on the Black community at the hands of police have caused many of them to go eerily silent, or offer solutions that sound like nothing more than respectability politics. A press release here, or a statement about “not being anti-police but…” there is all many the Black Greek Letter Organizations have seemed to muster in the face of a growing issue.
My fear isn’t that these organizations aren’t aware of what is going on as much as it is that they are aware of who is leading this new movement and can’t see past the sex and gender to stand strong with their brothers, sisters, and non-conforming folks. From the beginning of this modern day civil rights movement, queer women and men have been at the forefront of the movement.
My fear is that many of these organizations are so concerned about the “who” that leads that they have chosen to keep their heteronormative, masculine-centered image intact, fully ignoring the constant and growing danger for Blacks to exist in America. I, and others, have even reduced participation in our frats and sororities to join newer orgs like the BYP 100 to make sure that the concerns and rights of ALL Black lives are being addressed in a way that prevents erasure of marginalized communities, and uplifts voices from those who are most often silenced.
There is a place and a need for all of us, and this is a call for all Black organizations of the past, present, and future do as Beyoncé says and “Get in Formation.”
We have let this go on far enough, and now the silence is becoming violence against our own community. There is no such thing as a “perfect victim” or “perfect life to defend.” And if you are a Black organization built on the principles of Black lives mattering, then you must stand strong and serve for the protection and rights of ALL Black lives, not just the Black lives that are acceptable based on “society standards.”
Respectability politics have yet to save a soul, and we are much stronger as a unified front than we could ever be individual puzzle pieces trying to make a whole.
George M. Johnson is a queer black writer and columnist based in the DC area. He has written on race, culture, gender, sex, health, and education, for Ebony.com, TheBody.com, Huff post Black Voices, Jetmag.com, and print publication A&U Magazine. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook