EAST ORANGE, NJ — In a presentation drawing on the rich history of social justice movements in the United States, Harvard University professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad spoke at an event hosted by the Oranges and Maplewood unit of the NAACP at Elmwood United Presbyterian Church in East Orange on Jan. 7.
A well-known speaker and author, the South Orange resident is the former director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, one of the world’s leading research facilities dedicated to the history of the African Diaspora.
“Barack Obama has symbolized more than anyone else in American history that content of character can propel you forward,” Muhammad said to the audience. “But in the wake of Obama’s presidency, we are met with another crisis: quality information that shows health care disparities exist, and there are racial gaps at every level of health care.”
While noting the historical significance of Obama becoming the first black president of the United States, Muhammad also pointed out that this success came as a result of those who were willing to fight for civil rights long before there was a recognized movement for it.
“It really was something to know that people stood in defiance of racism, not knowing what was to come,” he said. “But now that we have the Black Lives Matter movement in the age of Trump, and beyond the age of Trump, people are asking themselves: Why didn’t the civil rights movement fix all of these problems?”
One piece of the puzzle, according to Muhammad, is that when studying the history of the civil rights movement, important pieces of the struggle are being left out of the discussion.
“When we start the story with Rosa Parks being a tired seamstress who didn’t want to stand, we strip the story of its power and we overlook the training in civil disobedience that Parks had long before she got on that bus. This was a woman who was a field organizer and committed to being ready when the time came for her to act,” he said in the presentation. “Brown v. Board of Education didn’t start with Linda Brown’s long walk to school. It started with campaigns in each state to have the same amount per capita spent on black children for public education as their white counterparts were receiving.”
In citing these examples, Muhammad urged the audience to think about what hasn’t been done right, what can be learned from the past and what can be done differently in the future.
“We have put too much faith in the idea of the ‘exceptional negro’ and the myth that we can engineer a better country by dressing things up in shades of black and brown,” he said. “Nixon gave us black capitalism on one hand and ‘the war on drugs’ on the other hand, and we accepted the gospel of personal responsibility and allowed the idea of social responsibility to be drowned out.”
With the political and racial tensions that have erupted throughout the country, Muhammad shared that now, more than ever before, it is important for the American people to take a critical look at every level of government.
“Donald Trump did us a favor because he showed us how active white supremacy is in this country. He punched a hole in the face of post-racialism. He gave us an X-ray into the tumor of our country,” he said. “In 1965, the Voting Rights Act had just passed and black communities were mobilizing. Without mobilized black activism, democracy as a whole in this country is threatened.”
Muhammad also took questions from the audience, one of which was how to deal with modern-day voting rights infringement.
“Hold elected officials accountable. Each one of us has an obligation to speak honestly about what is going on in our communities,” he said. “We the people, not our elected officials, are the real protectors of democracy.”
Photos by Shanee Frazier