Since Selma, the face of discrimination has grown subtler

Community organizations with strong supporters and good lawyers are leading the civil rights charge today

I finally saw "Selma" last weekend. I'd delayed because I didn't want to see it in a crowded movie theater. I figured it would leave me tearful and angry — which it did.

It was painful to see such hatred directed at people whose only offenses were the color of their skin and having the audacity to demand that the government protect their right to vote.

I could imagine my mother, my aunts and my uncles in that crowd of marchers trying to outrun billy clubs and tear gas in a city not far from the Alabama farm where they'd grown up.

The film was a visceral reminder of the costs borne by my parents' generation for a civil right that we now seem to take for granted.

Consider this week's election in Los Angeles, where only about one in 10 registered voters bothered to cast ballots.

I understand now why my mother used to drag me to the polling place with her every election day. She wanted her children to consider voting not just as a right, but an obligation.

She'd grown up under "whites only" restrictions. She knew the pain of being insulted, ignored, expected to grovel, told that she didn't count because she was black. Voting gave her a voice; she took pride in having a say in our destiny.

But this isn't my mother's civil rights movement anymore. Discrimination today is broader, more subtle and harder to dislodge.

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Fifty years ago, the Selma-to-Montgomery march drew people of all races who'd been horrified by scenes of brutality.

There was a clear line then between good and evil. Law-abiding citizens were rallying against a governor whose slogan was "segregation forever" and the club-swinging, badge-wearing thugs trying to deprive them of their rights.

But there is no physical enemy now. The struggle is against structural injustice, rooted in history and shaped by economics.

Nor is there one charismatic leader to marshal forces on the current civil rights battlegrounds: criminal justice and education. What once was mainly the province of preachers and politicians now is the work of community organizations — with strong supporters and good lawyers.

In South Los Angeles, for example, Karen Bass, now a member of Congress, started the Community Coalition 25 years ago as a way to battle substance abuse. Now its agenda includes improving failing schools.

Back then, Bass was a physician's assistant and instructor at USC, worried about her own neighborhood. "I was really scared in the 1980s of what crack was doing to the black community," she said. The drug epidemic was splintering families and destroying lives; profits from drug sales fueled gang recruitment and led to violent feuds.

"It was just overwhelming, and it didn't seem like there was an end in sight," Bass recalled. "We were trying to come up with a way to address the intersection between crack cocaine and gang violence."

The group recruited young people, reached out to senior citizens and interviewed families door-to-door. The closer activists looked, the more problems they discovered. The group "grew organically," Bass said, as residents weighed in on what was important to them and gained the confidence to ask tough questions of local politicians.

Over the years, Community Coalition has forced neighborhood liquor stores to clean up or close, advocated for children in foster care and pushed the Los Angeles school district to spend more money on maintenance, offer more college-level courses and stop suspending so many students at schools in South L.A.

This week the coalition's president, Marqueece Harris-Dawson, was elected to the Los Angeles City Council. He got his start as a young activist with Community Coalition.

"We learned lessons from the civil rights movement, and we share those lessons with our young people," Bass said.

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I've talked with those students when they come by the busload to school board meetings, armed with protest signs and chanting slogans ("Equity is justice." "No more school-to-prison pipeline.") — determined to challenge policies they've decided aren't in their best interests.

Some might look like gang members, but they sound like policy wonks. They're ambitious and impatient, fighting for changes that are long overdue: better teachers, more counselors, cleaner campuses, more rigorous courses.

"We've got kids who are mad about the fact that they don't have an algebra class," Bass said.

They're convinced that something important is being denied them, and they're not willing to stand for that. In that way, they're not unlike those young people marching with the protesters in Selma.

For this generation, a good education is a civil right that's at least as important as the right to cast a ballot.

These students won't quiet down until adults acknowledge that. They're emboldened by our history and empowered by their own success. They may never have been listened to before — but they have found their voice.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT

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