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Talk is no substitute for action

By Lauren Victoria Burke/NNPA columnist
On December 31, 1969

Peaceful protests and boycotts, not panel discussions, bring about action.
Credit: Loavesofbread/Creative Commons

Have you ever seen a photo of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taking part of a panel discussion? It’s likely he didn’t have time if he were asked. It’s also likely that in the 1950s and 1960s, he wasn’t asked much. The period King conquered was a time of action. The actions Dr. King took got results and won huge victories.

Last year, we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This year, we are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In all of the commemorating and celebrating, maybe it’s time we ask ourselves: has activism been replaced by retracing marches and yet another panel discussion?

There is no escaping the endless hot air. There is a panel at every turn. At every annual convention. At every luncheon. Even sometimes at breakfast. Even worse, many African-American events feature the same panel discussion. It is a repeat of the same problems and virtually the identical discussion the year before.

Wait, it gets worse. It’s typically the case that the discussion features no “call to action” or a clear, detailed set of ideas that might lead to action. That these discussions often feature some of the best and the brightest “public intellectuals” of the era may not be something to celebrate. If the smartest among us spend more time talking than acting, that can’t be a good thing.

With the understanding that the centerpiece of the American civil rights movement was based around action rather than panel discussions, we should view endless talk as a problem and perhaps even a barrier. No panel discussion ever ended police brutality. No panel discussion you will ever see or ever hear will end income inequality or put a young person through college. Clearly, the exchange of ideas is important. But when all discussed begins and ends with “the exchange” only, it may be time to re-think what creates real change.

In history, when we’ve seen change, we’ve often seen it after unrest. Unrest that scared those in power. We’ve often seen change after civil disobedience. Perhaps African Americans saw the biggest change after America’s War Between the States. Currently, the centerpiece of “civil rights” activity appears to be talking.

What we just witnessed in Ferguson, Mo., provides a perfect example. Before so-called “Black leaders” arrived to tell everyone to relax – a notion so ridiculous it should have perhaps set off more unrest – protesters were receiving worldwide attention. If an event such as the shooting death in the middle of the street of an unarmed teenager doesn’t cause active protest, what will?

We don’t need another panel discussion to understand what brought those in power to the table on the issue. We don’t need another discussion from “pubic intellectuals” who spend more time talking rather than doing (and making plenty of money in the process) to know what kept attention on the situation in Ferguson.

The activities of five decades ago yielded big results – Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, among others. But few of those big results and political victories are being duplicated today. And the problems, for the African-American community in particular, are getting larger.

Four days after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on December 1, 1955, Blacks boycotted buses in Montgomery, Ala. The protest lasted 381 days. Every day was a day of action. Every day was strategy session. The effort required 13 months of patience and perseverance.  The result: The U.S. Supreme Court ordered the city of Montgomery to integrate the bus system. None of this happened because of panel discussions and press conferences. Without applying constant pressure none of it would have ever happened. Without active pressure on power today, we will be left with nothing but talk.

Lauren Victoria Burke is freelance writer and creator of the blog, which covers African American members of Congress. Her website is Reach her at or on Twitter at @Crewof42.

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