I was born in 1971. MLK was already dead, as were Malcolm and JFK. The Vietnam War was coming to a close and the women’s movement had reached a plateau. It was a time when our parents hoped that we would not have to march again. They hoped that they had done the fighting for us. And to some extent they had, but, as we all know, there is always another battle around the corner. If we get complacent the issues and challenges rear their ugly heads–not on our terms, but theirs.
The NAACP, the Urban League, SCLC and CORE were organizations that were grainy black-and-white images from the “Eyes on the Prize” series. That was our mother and father’s time–they were the old guard.
By age 20 we had already seen the Tawana Brawley incident and the Central Park Jogger attack. We had seen injustices carried out right in front of our noses. We saw young Black men vilified for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The atrocities toward Black people grew and grew. Racism became more blatant and yet there was complacency among the organizations that were supposed to combat these wrongs. They still existed, but they were not the organizations of the time.
Few spoke out in those days on the issues. I was lucky enough to have a father, Wilbert Tatum, who believed in what others did not–he defended the Central Park 5 on this very page when others, Black and white, could not believe in their innocence.
And in 1991, the then-jogging suit-wearing rabble-rouser Rev. Al Sharpton took to the streets to protest the killing of Yusef Hawkins. The 16-year-old Hawkins had been shot to death in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, when he was attacked by a crowd of white youth wielding baseball bats. One, armed with a handgun, shot Hawkins twice in the chest, killing him. At that protest On January 12, 1991, Sharpton was stabbed in a Bensonhurst schoolyard. A month later the National Action Network was born.
So, beginning in 1991 NAN became a force. Chronicled in the pages of the AmNews and in other media both progressive and not-so-progressive, you heard about the comings and goings of Sharpton and the network across the country.
NAN was the first Civil Rights organization I had seen in action–really, the first major Civil Rights organization of the late 20th century. They were on the ground and in the streets, fighting day in and day out. They did not necessarily take most the popular or the most politically expedient stands, but they were the right stands. NAN stood up for what was right and good. They defended those who needed defending and protested those who were killing our community’s folks wholesale.
I witnessed with my own eyes the marches down Fifth Avenue. The hundreds of people getting arrested at One Police Plaza to protest police brutality and the fight for justice for Abner Louima, who was tortured in the 70th Police Precinct. Then came the killing of Amadou Diallo, where an NYPD street crime unit shot an unarmed immigrant 40 times in a hail of gunfire.
This is what I remember. This was the heart of the Civil Rights Movement of my time.
As part of NAN, Sharpton created the Madison Avenue Initiative fighting for parity in advertising for Black media both in public and behind the scenes in boardrooms. NAN and Sharpton have been a force for making this country a better place for people of color and others, because they believe that right is not based on color but on justice.
While the NAACP and Urban League still hold a very important place in our culture and community, and both organizations are making great strides under the leadership of Benjamin Jealous and Marc Morial, the newer kids on the corner with 20 years under their belt, the National Action Network, have proven to be a force to be reckoned with.
NAN has created change and made a difference in the lives of countless people here and abroad. Just like SNCC helped motivate the younger and more progressive Black folks of our parents’ time, NAN is doing the same for this generation. Let us work with all our great organizations, each of which has a critical place for the more than 40 million Black people and the tens of millions of others who want to make this world a better place for generations to come.
Happy birthday, National Action Network. For many of us, we literally might not be here without you.