DETROIT -- The dental assistant students at Crockett Vocational/Technical Center can tell you all about Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
But ask them to name contemporary civil rights leaders and they stumble. After a while, the class of 14 white-smocked students standing in line outside the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History to pay respects to Parks on Tuesday come up with a few names. But it takes a while.
"All of them were either assassinated or died," said Lonia Wymes, 17, a senior. "Most of the work was done a long time ago, but it still needs to be done. There's not that much progress."
As more than 75,000 paid their last respects to the fallen civil rights hero Tuesday, some wondered where the movement sparked by Parks goes from this museum rotunda. While some old issues remain and new ones have emerged, today's civil rights movement has failed to find a galvanizing theme or leaders who can make that theme resonate.
"To be honest, there aren't too many true leaders out there today," said Terry Patterson, 32, a Detroit police officer, who stood in line to view Parks on his day off. "Someone really needs to step up and fill that void."
Since her Oct. 24 death, Parks has been honored at services in Montgomery, Ala., where her refusal to give up a seat on a bus helped spark the civil rights movement; in the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., where laws were passed to strike at the heart of segregation; and for an emotional 32 hours in the museum of her adopted home of Detroit.
She will be laid to rest today following an 11 a.m. public service at Greater Grace Temple on Seven Mile. Doors will open at 9 a.m., with lines to fill the 5,000 seats expected to form hours before that.
The deaths of Parks and other leaders of the civil rights battles of the 1950s and 1960s have written an epitaph for a movement that forced the end of segregated lunch counters and racial discrimination at the polls. The world-changing impact of those struggles makes today's civil rights skirmishes appear tame by comparison.
Yet the issues facing African-Americans today are in some ways more intractable than those faced by their parents and grandparents. Income inequity between whites and blacks remains stubbornly wide, as do gaps in health and education. Meanwhile, some of the hard-fought victories of four decades ago, such as the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action, are under attack.
"In some ways, we have not achieved the empowerment that was supposed to come with freedom," said Ronald Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland and author of a book on the Voting Rights Act, "Freedom is Not Enough."
Walters stood in line for six hours to pay respects to Parks in the Capitol rotunda in Washington, D.C., over the weekend. "If she and (Martin Luther) King were here today, they'd wonder what the hell happened, how far off the road to equality we got," Walters said. "Civil rights is virtually in the same place it's been for years."
Walters believes the victories of the past led to the complacency of the present.
"We're in an era that is more conservative than it was," he said. "It's an era that says we've done what we need to do for civil rights and now it's up to individual responsibility.
"That's flat wrong. You still need civil rights protection."
But those protections are more difficult to define -- and thus fight -- than on the day Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. Then, inequities were overt and often written into law.
More work to be done
The Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit branch of the NAACP, said the gains of the past stand out because they were so public. The marches, the pickets and clashes with police played out on television in the 1960s. Today, most of the work is done behind closed doors, he said.
"It's not as clear and distinct as it was 40 years ago," Anthony said. "You saw people getting held down. You saw the signs and segregated lunch counters. Today, Jim Crow and Jim Crow Esq. have on three-piece suits. They don't bar you from their restaurants. They pass laws and hike up insurance rates to force you out of the communities."
Economic inequity remains between the races despite decades of legal safeguards. Walters said more must be done to close the education gap between blacks and whites.
Meanwhile, one of the major components of closing the education gap, affirmative action, is under attack. A constitutional amendment barring racial preferences in government hiring and university admissions in Michigan will likely be on the ballot in 2006.
A similar ban passed in California in 1996, and black enrollment at the law school of the prestigious University of California-Berkeley dropped dramatically.
Closing the voting gap
Another issue facing the civil rights movement is the renewal of the Voting Rights Act. The act, which ended a pattern of harassment, poll taxes and literacy tests aimed at limiting minority voting, is set to expire in 2007.
Considered the crown jewel of the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act has closed the gap in voting participation between blacks, and the number of black elected officials at all levels of government has increased 20-fold nationwide.
While the act has been successful beyond the dreams of its sponsors, it is still needed as a safeguard, said Gerry Hebert, a former Justice Department official who was in charge of administering the Voting Rights Act for more than 20 years and who specializes in election law.
"You still see efforts being made by state and local governments to harm minority rights."
The act has bipartisan support and is expected to be renewed. But a debate is brewing over key provisions of the act that could affect the level of voting among other minorities, particularly Hispanics.
Some in Congress want to eliminate a provision of the act requiring bilingual ballots. That could lower the vote among recent immigrants.
To address those issues takes leadership -- and leadership is missing from today's civil rights organizations, said the Rev. Abraham Lincoln Woods, a board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a deputy director of King's 1963 march.
"I don't see the committed, selfless people like Rosa Parks who are willing to pay with their lives for the instillation of freedom," Woods said.
To Penny Herrington, the issues haven't changed, but the people have. "They take things for granted," she said. "(But) there is still so much racism and prejudice, so much judging someone by the color of their skin."
Herrington is the daughter of Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit woman shot to death in Alabama in 1965 following a civil rights march.
"People want you to think that the goals of the civil rights movement have been accomplished, and they haven't," Herrington said. "There is still a lot of work to be done."
Herrington planned to attend Parks' funeral today, and spent Monday and Tuesday speaking to students at area high schools and colleges about the need to continue fighting for civil rights.
"Miss Rosa, her death brought it into perspective again," said Herrington, 59, of Tollhouse, Calif. "Now that the original civil rights people are getting elderly and dying, it rests on our shoulders. I told my son that it's going to be on his shoulders and his kids' shoulders, until it is done."
You can reach Ron French at (313) 222-2175 or firstname.lastname@example.org.