Nelson Mandela turned 95 years old on Thursday, July 18. He has been hospitalized for more than a month, and the world holds its breath as we witness the decline of the lion that roared for freedom in South Africa. Mandela’s insistence and persistence for freedom for Black South Africans, which included a 27-year jail sentence, reminds us of the persistence it takes to make structural and institutional change.
We African Americans have been far more episodic in our quest for freedom. We galvanized around Brown v. Board of Education, again around the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Fifty years ago, we were on the Mall in Washington, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, the most well-known of the several speeches delivered that day. We continued to fight for college admission, fair housing, and diverse police forces. And as these gains were attained, some of us stopped fighting.
Many in the Black middle class didn’t know what they should fight for. They had good jobs, nice homes, and good cars. They had gone to college and their children were, as well. Unless they were dyed in the wool civil rights activists, they were content to coast along. To be sure, there were micro aggressions they needed to manage, much as Ellis Cose’s Rage of a Privileged Class: Why Are Middle-Class Blacks Angry? Why Should America Care? (Harper Books, 1993) detailed. While there is a connection between many kinds of profiling, there is a big difference between being hassled at a department store and being unarmed and killed on the street.
The South African fight was clear, just as the fight for African American rights was in the sixties. The difference? African Americans made gains that were tenuous without continued protest. In South Africa, the pressure for protest has been continuous despite the gains that have been made. Even as Black Africans have been elected to leadership in South Africa, many see past the titular gains to ask about the living conditions of those who are not middle class, not moneyed, still living without electricity in townships. In contrast, few African American politicians speak for the least and the left out, the poor, the unemployed, the marginal. That there is an African American president of the United States has been more a muzzle than a motivator. Reluctant to criticize President Barack Obama, too many activists have swallowed their ire even as our president has ignored them.
As Nelson Mandela struggles to maintain life, one is reflective about the ways he was denied his freedom for so long. Mandela made a life for himself on Robben Island, as he navigated captivity and restriction, broken promises and crippled dreams. Because of Mandela’s persistent and gentle spirit, however, he prevailed enough to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (along with Frederik Willem de Klerk) in 1993.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also earned a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his work in the Civil Rights Movement. In accepting the Peace Prize, he said “I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, peace and freedom for their spirits.” King laid out a game plan that many have only reluctantly embraced. We still have hunger, illiteracy and dissent in the U.S. Few have stepped up to deal with these matters with the persistence that Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress had. When President Obama establishes a middle class task force, what does this mean for the poor?
Perhaps the comparison between US black people and those in South Africa is unfair. WE have had leaders like Nelson Mandela – Dorothy Irene Height comes immediately to mind – who have given their lives to the freedom struggle and have not wavered or cowered in the face of challenge. South Africa, like the United States, has class divides between the middle class and the poor, with a sometimes indifferent middle class more interested in profits than people. But when I think of Nelson Mandela’s persistence, I think of the many ways that we, African Americans, have dropped the ball.
Trayvon Martin is not the first young man to have been massacred in the streets, nor is he the first to garner national attention. Little has changed because we have not been persistent in our protest. The details in providing equal opportunity in South Africa may be flawed, but they represent movement. The episodic engagement of African Americans around justice issues pales in the face of South African persistence.
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.