The arc of Timuel Black Jr.’s life is long, covering most of the 20th century and all we’ve seen of the 21st. Along the way, the 102-year-old labor organizer, educator, author and freedom fighter has witnessed pivotal events in American and African American history.
As an infant, he survived the 1918 influenza pandemic. He was part of the Great Migration, which brought his family north from Alabama to Chicago. As an Army soldier in World War II, he battled both Hitler abroad and segregation at home. During the civil rights movement, he led a contingent to the 1963 March on Washington.
Today, he counts former president Barack Obama as a protege, supports the Black Lives Matter movement and is experiencing another pandemic, COVID-19.
“Though the struggle goes on, I am encouraged by younger generations, in particular, across races and gender,” Black told USA TODAY in a phone interview. “They’re fighting to make things better economically, socially, politically for everyone, not just for themselves.”
The country is grappling with concurrent crises that have disproportionately shaken Black Americans: COVID-19, economic instability and resurgent racism.
Four years of a White House occupied by former President Donald Trump emboldened bigotry, exposing deep racial divides and simmering resentment. The 2020 police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others ignited nationwide and global protests. In a nation already devastated by a deadly coronavirus with no cure, the racial unrest felt like “a match dropped into a powder keg of grief,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League.
The powder keg exploded on Jan. 6, when a mostly white, male mob stormed the U.S. Capitol building to protest the election of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Five people died, including a Capitol Police officer.
Trump had riled up supporters that day by again claiming without evidence that the election had been stolen, and he urged them to march to the Capitol to try to stop the electoral votes from being counted. Trump was impeached – for the second time – for inciting the mob. Yet many believe this chapter does not end with Trump’s exit from office.
“He is a symptom, not the cause. If we do not find a path forward that goes beyond consequences for just one man, this can and will happen again,” said Quentin James, president of The Collective PAC, which works to elect and politically empower African Americans. “The rhetoric, often racist and hateful, that encouraged the participants in the attack will not just go away.”
Clearly America and its 328 million Black Americans are at a critical inflection point. What’s next to propel an agenda of progress?
Despite its difficulties, 2020 was a year of “remarkable progress” in the fight for racial equity, Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter. “The challenges affecting Black America became the biggest issues on the presidential ballot for the first time in modern history. And Southern Black voters made history with unprecedented turnout at the polls, largely driven by demands to see changes in their communities,” he said.
Co-founder LaTosha Brown added: “We’ve achieved so much in the past year because of our voting power, and now we must continue to build and maintain that power.”
Indeed, years of Black grassroots organizing, the Black Lives Matter movement, and multiracial coalitions sparked record-breaking Black turnout that set the stage for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s historic victory over Trumpism, and the election of Raphael Warnock to the U.S. Senate from Georgia.
“The win unlocks the full possibility of the restorative and transformational agenda that Black voters and organizers worked for in November,” said Arisha Hatch, executive director of Color Of Change PAC. “This improbable and hard-won victory will allow President-elect Biden to pursue the agenda he laid forth in his victory speech, one that centers the needs of Black communities.”
To move forward, healing must commence, said Rev. Al Sharpton, President/Founder of the National Action Network. But first, “the injured parties” require a seat at the table. “You can’t have this discussion without African Americans, given all the ills we’ve suffered as a people. Progressives and conservatives must speak to us, not for us. They don’t know what we need.”
Sharpton was among seven civil rights leaders who met with Biden and Harris in December. Also participating were leaders from the NAACP, the Urban League, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
The 90-minute discussion, which included Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La, whom Biden has tapped to head the White House Office of Public Engagement, ranged from advancing racial equity to enforcing civil rights to ensuring the Biden administration represents the diversity of modern America. Separately, Biden’s team also met with the Rev. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, about ways to aid impoverished and lower-wealth individuals and families.
“The structural inequality that’s rooted deep within our society must be addressed,” said NAACP president Derrick Johnson. “We must prioritize the transformation of our nation into a more just, equal society where all can succeed and thrive.”
The NAACP is urging Biden to create a White House position for a national advisor on racial justice who would centralize “bold, visionary thinking and strategy on racial justice,” and foster holistic practices to tackle systemic racism.
Henry Fernandez, a national pollster with the African American Research Collaborative, sampled thousands of voters in recent months to learn their priorities and concerns. While “COVID dominates,” discrimination and racial justice are number two among Black respondents,” he said. Next are jobs and the economy, followed by police reform.
Indeed, 2020 exposed longstanding systemic racism across nearly every facet of American life–from childcare as kids remotely attend school, to accessible healthcare.
The National Urban League’s annual `State of Black America’ report, “Unmasked,” cites a sobering statistic: African Americans and Latinos are more than three times as likely to contract the coronavirus as whites, and African Americans are nearly twice as likely to die.
Black patients tend to be far sicker when finally receiving treatment, in part, because they are less likely to have health insurance. Moreover, the health care system may downplay their symptoms. In a video that went viral in December, Black physician Susan Moore alleged implicit bias by a white doctor at an Indiana hospital. Moore moved to another facility, but died soon after, reportedly from COVID-19 complications.
The incident hits home for Melanie Campbell, president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, who is a COVID-19 survivor. “The administration’s COVID Task Force must pay special attention to what is happening with racial disparities in hospital care, especially as it relates to who is admitted when they show up for treatment based on race and gender,” she said.
The report also found that 20% of essential workers, largely people of color, live in poverty; more than 40% rely on public assistance. Meanwhile, the Black unemployment rate has remained twice as high as that of whites, at nearly 7 percent.
“We need a broad stimulus plan and a secondary economic infrastructure recovery plan that focuses on long-term investment: broadband, transportation and community facilities,” Morial said. “That plan has to have specific measures in it that ensure that Black and Brown workers and businesses have an opportunity to participate. Business as usual and exclusionary practices are not going to work.”
Even as protests continue in the streets, activists are addressing policy at the local, state and federal levels.
Following this summer’s Democratic and Republican national party conventions’, the 2020 Black National Convention, held virtually, drew nearly half a million participants.
“We have a vision for Black lives and a plan,” said Jessica Byrd, co-organizer of The Movement for Black Lives’ Electoral Justice Project, a coalition of 100-plus groups behind the convention. “We helped mobilize millions to vote, and it’s harvest time,” Byrd said. “But the work is not done.”
The movement’s political platform addresses slavery reparations, universal income, criminal justice reform, housing investments, environmental justice and more.
A major legislative initiative is The BREATHE Act, which would divest federal resources from incarceration and policing; invest in non-punitive approaches to community safety; allocate new funding to build healthy, sustainable and equitable communities; and enhance Black self-determination.
“It’s a legislative love letter to Black people and a modern day landmark civil rights bill,” said Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter. “We can’t stop at survival. We also have to ask, what does it take for Black people to thrive?”
It will take bold, transformative policymaking–from cities, to state capitols to the halls of Congress.
Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, the new chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, pledged, “I will work with the Biden Administration, House and Senate Leadership, as well as my congressional colleagues, to defeat the pandemic and ensure better days lie ahead for all of us.
“Moreover, I will use my voice to address enduring economic and health disparities and fight to break the chains of systemic racism that have held back the Black community for far too long.”
The CBC marks its 50th anniversary this year with a record 59 members, 28 of them women.
Beatty indicated the caucus will focus on racial wealth equity, affordable healthcare access; stronger housing and education policies; criminal justice reforms and cleaning up the environment.
Any battle plan for progress must incorporate building and fortifying Black institutions, says Spencer Overton, president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a storied Black think tank.
That includes Black businesses, think tanks, political and advocacy organizations, HBCUs, community groups, churches and the like.
“Laws and politicians will come and go. Some will be good and others will be bad for Black folks. Strong Black institutions allow us to weather the storms, exercise agency and leadership, debate, participate and fully take advantage of opportunities.”
In this season of racial reckoning, Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, is bullish on holding entities accountable, from government to corporations. To wit, the racial justice group has negotiated a long-term commitment from Facebook for fighting discrimination.
“Racial justice can’t be a stand-alone issue, it has to be integrated into everything,” Robinson said. “It means actually addressing and repairing the harm done by generations of institutionalized racist policy in government and society and moving forward to a better future.”
Glynda C. Carr is the co-founder and CEO of Higher Heights, which helps elect Black women. Its network has proven pivotal to the history-making candidacy of Harris and numerous national, state and local victories. “The next phase of our collective political power is how do we hold elected officials accountable and receive a return on our voting investment? We can’t continue to say Black women decide elections, but at the end of the day, the daily lives of everyday Americans, African Americans and Black women’s circumstances don’t change.”
Many concur. “It’s time for the next narrative of Black America, one that insists on defining us by our daily contributions to this nation,” said Trabian Shorters, founder and CEO of BMe, a national organization that invests in communities. “It’s important that neither friend nor foe ever forgets how worthy and important we are.”
David Johns is executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights organization focused on LGBTQ equality. Amid a rash of Black transgender women being murdered in 2020, he wants Black Americans to take care of themselves — and each other.
“We will continue laboring to ensure that each of us, our families, and our communities can fully and meaningfully participate in every facet of American life. We will continue to push this nation to live up to the promise of its founding principles of liberty and justice for all.”
Black agrees. “All people need to be aware that on this earth, in all the generations, politics is part of the answer — a very important part — and the control of who is going to, at the top level, make decisions about the distribution of food, clothing and shelter to all is the challenge that I see.”
He thinks Black America should carry a we-shall-overcome attitude that channels the fortitude of the ancestors.
“Do I think there’s a continuation of the theme who we had with Dr. Martin Luther King and other leaders across the world? The idea is, be optimistic and believe in the song that we sang at the March on Washington and other places throughout the world: ‘We shall overcome. We shall overcome. One day.’
“That is the legacy which my generation, following the inheritance of my ancestors, have continued to believe. That this world can be and ought to be a world of safety and comfort for all people. … as expressed in the Constitution of the United States. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men, and gradually to human beings, are created equal, are endowed. So that is encouraging and inspires this old man to continue the movement.”
Contributing: Grace Hauck