Engaging the Powers: The Promise of a New Civil Rights Era | Sojourners

Engaging the Powers: The Promise of a New Civil Rights Era

Occupy Wall Street
Occupy Wall Street gathering in 2012, gabriel12 / Shutterstock.com

When Occupy Wall Street emerged in the fall of 2011 many media personalities and social commentators critiqued the lack of a clear and concise list of demands from the nascent movement. Months later, when the only thing blanketing Zuccotti Park in New York City was freshly fallen snow, I was tempted to write off Occupy as an idealistic moment that produced little lasting change.

As we move toward the 4-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, my assessment has changed. Thanks in part to the work of Occupy, America is having a new debate around increasing the minimum wage, restaurant workers are waging their “fight for 15,” and even Wal-Mart recently announced wage increases for employees. We are having new public policy debates around what it means to be part of a moral economy.

But the biggest impact of Occupy was not changing the debate, but where the movement began. This was not another tired march or protest in Washington, D.C., trying to recapture the power of the March on Washington in 1963. This was not a lobby day on Capitol Hill. This was not an attempt to sway dysfunctional Democrats and Republicans in Congress or the White House. No, Occupy went over their heads, and focused squarely on Wall Street. They understood that real change in this nation will only happen when we apply our morals and our values to what Pope Francis calls an “Economy of Exclusion.”

In the past few years, a new era of civil rights organizing has emerged out of the depths of tragedy and despair. The list of names of young African Americans who have died at the hand of police, out-of-control vigilantes, and hate-filled white terrorists has fostered profound lament and intense anger. The simple phrase, “Black Lives Matter” has galvanized activism, mobilizing, and organizing.

This new civil rights battle includes legislative battles at state houses like South Carolina, leading to the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds. There is work to do in D.C. as well. Yet the real front of this new era will be on the corporate scene, on Wall Street and with economic power brokers and corporations. It is time to go “over the heads” of politicians and enter into dialogue and debate with corporations over the value and dignity of dark bodies, and how to reconstruct a moral economy that is not profiting off of people of color.

On the evening of July 10, we in Cincinnati experienced a possible early effort to engage corporate America in the Black Lives Matter movement. On the eve of Major League Baseball’s All-Star Weekend, leaders and clergy from the AMOS Project and other community leaders worked with the MLB, The Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and the Cincinnati Reds for a summit on race and justice. While far from perfect (no young people were part of the program — a trend that must be halted), this good faith effort demonstrates that some corporate powers can be brought into the struggle for racial and economic justice when people of faith build power and struggle together.

To change America and the world for the cause of racial equity, we must engage the powers that be, and prophetically urge corporate powers to be part of the work of justice.