Civil rights fight not over yet

19 01 2009

Civil rights vets: Fight not over because Obama reaches top

By Eliott C. McLaughlin

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) — Barack Obama’s inauguration marks a profound manifestation of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s dream, civil rights leaders say, but the movement would be foolish to drop its guard now.

King did not fight tirelessly and ultimately give his life so African-Americans could take office; he fought for the disenfranchised and downtrodden, no matter their color, said Charles Steele, president and CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King and Steele’s father helped found.

“President-elect Barack Obama is just a piece of the puzzle,” he said. “This tells us that we are at a station, but it’s not our destination. We’ve got to get back on the train.”

Steele said he worries that those who espouse King’s dream may grow lackadaisical because an African-American has taken the reins of the free world. But it is imperative, he said, that they “march now more than ever before.”

Steele points to 1963, when tens of thousands of protesters converged on Washington to demand equal rights. It was there King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the Lincoln Memorial steps.

President Kennedy’s administration was considered the most receptive ever to the concerns of the civil rights movement, Steele said. But rather than sit back and hope Kennedy did the right thing, King and thousands stormed Washington to lay out demands that later would yield the Civil Rights Act and National Voting Rights Act.

Those down for the cause today must do the same with Obama, Steele said.

“Back in the ’60s we were fighting for President-elect Barack Obama; we just didn’t know it was him,” Steele said. “It was civil rights, not politics, that got us to this position, and we can’t forget that.”

Andrew Young remembers pickets outside City Hall the day he took office as Atlanta’s second black mayor in 1982. Young, a former King lieutenant, said he was initially confused when he noticed some of the protesters were his supporters.

“I said, ‘I haven’t changed.’ They said, ‘Yes, you have. You’re in charge,’ ” recalled Young, who also has been a U.S. congressman and U.N. ambassador. “They were there reminding me I was the man.”

Obama, too, needs to be reminded of the concerns of the African-American community, Young said, warning civil rights supporters not to assume Obama owes them something.

“He is one of the fruits of our labors,” Young said, “and all he has to do is plant more seeds and grow more trees that bear more fruit.”

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