Five Minutes With: The Hip Hop Caucus’ Rev. Lennox Yearwood
America celebrated a preacher from the South who sacrificed his time, and eventually his life, to fight for civil and human rights, Monday so it seemed right to catch up with another reverend, one who has reinvigorated the movement using hip-hop
Campus Progress spoke with Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr., president of Hip Hop Caucus—a national advocacy organization that engages young people in the political process, most notably through programs like Respect My Vote!—about mainstream media's approach to celebrating King's work, the civil rights movements of today and hip-hop and pop culture's place in the struggle for social justice. Yearwood is also a former employer of this reporter.
On Monday we celebrated King's legacy. At this point in the 21st Century, what does that mean?
It means a lot. One of his most important speeches took place 50 years ago, his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. That is important to say because many people think it was just the “I Have a Dream” march. Looking back, we recognize that the struggle wasn’t won in 1963, but a lot happened that year. People also forget that Dr. King was a progressive. A lot of conservatives want to claim him now because his voter ID card might have been Republican, but he was clearly a progressive. He was able to link together the nuances of war, poverty and racism in a way that hasn’t been done since.
The media often approaches this holiday by treating his dream as fully realized, framing the civil rights movement as finite. What's your take on mainstream media's treatment of Martin Luther King Day?
That’s the most hurtful thing for the movement. His message was neutered. In his last speech he linked up with the striking sanitation workers in Memphis. He was against the war, and even called out his country as one of the greatest purveyors of violence in this world. It is almost intentional to neutralize his message. He would speak truth to power, and often make power uncomfortable. He was arrested numerous times. And it is important for the movement to remember that side of him, as we face all new challenges in the wake of Citizens United, which is the worst Supreme Court decision since Dred Scott.
What are the true civil rights issues of today?
Economic issues are still front and center, especially in the black community where we have such high rates of unemployment, particularly among young black men. That leads to poverty, frustration, health problems, and violence. King understood that connection. He died fighting for sanitation workers to get a good wage. Today we also face the issue of our democracy being for sale. And it is important for us to continue to fight for the LBGT community and their rights. It’s an atrocity that in the 21st Century they don’t have equal rights. And the bottom line is that if we lose the battle over the environment, we lose it all. We saw with Hurricane Sandy how poor people are affected by climate change.
What works from King had the greatest impact on you?
His book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? made a huge impact in showing that we have to have a fierce urgency of now, and “Beyond Vietnam” his breaking the silence sermon from Riverside in 1967 talking about war and poverty. He was masterful at what he did; the “Mountaintop” speech was very prophetic. There was a very big difference in where he was in 1963, and where he was in 1968. Those years were transcendent.
Culture comes before politics. Using artists like 2 Chainz or Immortal Technique allows us to create a drum beat to march to, which makes our work easier. Even Dr. King worked with Harry Belafonte. Every movement needs cultural game changers to make a difference.
We also had a Presidential inauguration this week. What are your hopes and expectations for President Obama's second term?
I’m excited, and even more so for us than for him. This moment is critical. In the core of my being I believe that we are the most important generation this country has ever had. If we fight for justice, and equality, and fairness, we can change this country and the world.
Michael Cooper Jr. is a reporter for Campus Progress.