As a Gen X-er I am keenly aware that many of my generation and younger generations may not know or remember just how close past freedom movements lurk for us. And often the lessons of our foremothers and forefathers, which seem inapplicable and distant, have been lost.
But as we know those who fail to study the past are destined to repeat it. So to fully engage in the opportunities of the present and move the causes of freedom and justice forward, we must all be students of history.
In my own family, it was only three generations before me that one of my eight great grandparents, born in 1837, lived the humiliating and brutal existence of a slave. A slave, as Dr. King once described, “was a thing to be used, not a person to be respected.” Indeed, my great grandfather was not free to own land, he was not free to vote, he was not free to marry or even to choose his own mate, he was not free to earn wages for his own labor, he was not free to raise his own children, to learn to read, to own a book or even to decide whether or what time he would wake up in the morning. My great grandfather was the chattel property of some farmer who owned him just as he owned a pig or horse or piece of furniture. It was not until 1865 when Alabama ratified the 13th Amendment that my great grandfather was emancipated from slavery in Dallas County (just about 20 mile south of Selma) and at the age of 27, and, by our nation’s laws, first became human.
It was only two generations before me that both of my grandmothers were born into a world that considered them and all women the rightful property of men. Their ownership included the recognized and widely-practiced legal right to manage and discipline them as one might a child. Indeed, at least until 1920 when the 19th Amendment was finally ratified, they and most women were considered too childlike, emotional and unintelligent to handle the right to vote. It is not surprising then that both of my grandmothers suffered abuse from the hands of men in their own homes or communities. One, though valedictorian of her high school class, as a wife and mother of five, had to negotiate the right to work outside of her home. The other, though one of the few girls who was smart enough to be hand selected to attend high school in her small Mississippi town, found circumstances so dire that she never realized that opportunity for educational advancement when she fled her home as a teenager. Years later, she again felt the need to flee as a grown woman with her children in tow. She lived out the remainder of her much-too-short and much-too-hard life as a laundress for a hospital in order to take care of her family.
It was only one generation before me that my father was born as one of seventeen children to that same laundress and a sharecropper (which, for those of you who don’t know is a small step up from slavery - akin to indentured servitude). My father was born in a Mississippi town so tiny that just three or four businesses made up the entire downtown – among them a gas station, a store and a theater and, yet, even in a community that small, the tone of my father’s caramel-colored skin was so reviled he was restricted to the balcony to simply sit and watch a movie. Though he grew up with the constant degradation of Jim Crow in the cruelness of Mississippi-style racism, he was the beneficiary of unmitigated courage and unreasonable vision. It must have made quite an impression when he watched his father, my grandfather, march to the big house to tell the master of the house that in no uncertain terms was he or his field bosses to give orders to his sons to work unless those orders came through and from him. You see my grandfather insisted on creating and maintaining a school in the little black neighborhood church and he insisted that his children would not spend their days tilling the land in the heat of the Mississippi sun but rather they would have the same opportunity to be educated like their white counterparts.
So my father was not raised to be particularly inclined to live in a world that deemed him unworthy of sitting at a food counter or sharing a water fountain. While barely out of adolescence and in his early 20s, he and his comrades took on the unjust systematic oppression that had defined their daily lives from the lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee to the bloody graves of Birmingham, Alabama (which by then had come to be known as “Bombingham”). It had infamously claimed among its dead four little innocent girls who were preparing their Sunday School lesson in the basement of their church on a quiet September morning. My father was not so desensitized to racial abuse that he could ignore the outrage, pain and an imminent sense of responsibility he felt after the senseless murder of yet another black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black woman’s son, who was shot while attempting to protect that woman – his mother – from the brutal beating unleashed on her by an Alabama trooper. News of Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death so ignited him that he, in turn, ignited a crowd with his fiery impromptu speech in a small church in Marion, Alabama. The members of that crowd, who, like my father, were sick of seeing strange fruit blossoming from their trees that too closely resembled the bodies of their fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, became the foot soldiers who took on what proved to be a deadly challenge to march from Selma to Montgomery to demand the right to vote and end the systematic brutality against black people. Images of Bloody Sunday as that first march came to be called ignited the nation. The power of the foot soldiers’ courage, their capacity to continue in the face of murderous brutality, their sheer determination to love and not retaliate against those whose hatred seemed boundless gave birth to the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
It was within my generation that my Jewish mother moved with her two black daughters to Memphis Tennessee -- her University of Michigan degree in hand -- and boldly knocked on the door of the Black Panther Party to offer herself as a comrade in the fight for justice and the fight against the white privilege that, in this nation and particularly in the South, was her birthright. Though she always remained a dedicated comrade in that fight, the indelible image of more than a dozen rifles cocked and aimed at her and her small children during a police raid caused her to rethink our living arrangements. We found our way to a small duplex on Philadelphia Street right next door to Mr. Jack. And, we had indeed jumped from the frying pan into the fire for Mr. Jack wasn’t just a racist, Mr. Jack was pure evil personified. He would force his teenage daughter to make the most despicable signs imaginable to post in his yard whenever a black candidate ran for office. He would make sure we witnessed him beating his grandson for the simple act of tossing a ball over the fence to us, as if our brownness, light though it was, might be a contagious condition that could afflict his household if we touched the same ball. A precaution he wouldn’t take if we had been merely dogs.
He would sit on his porch cleaning his guns and ranting about the demise of his once pure white world. One day while playing hide and seek, I had the unfortunate experience of staring down the barrel of one of Mr. Jack’s shot guns as he beckoned to me and said, “Come here nigger girl.” The fear I felt in the pit of my stomach only grew sharper when I was finally able to move my feet and run and tell my mother what he had done. I was afraid she would never come home when she marched to his house with our broom in her hand to let him have it. Needless to say, I completely underestimated the power of the truth spoken by a fiery mad mother who had no fear of living or dying for the sake of justice. I never saw one of Mr. Jack’s shotguns again.
It was with the voice of my generation that we organized and marched to protest the exoneration of police officers who were videotaped beating one of probably thousands of black men they had pursued and callously referred to over the LAPD CB airwaves as NHI – the acronym for “No Humans Involved.” Yet, at the same time, I, the great granddaughter of a man born into slavery, was able to launch this protest on my campus as a black student and campus leader at one of the most prestigious universities in the world.
And, it is within my sons’ generation that we have witnessed the landmark election of the first black President of these same United States in which the institution of slavery existed and thrived just four generations before them. A milestone that unfortunately has been marred by the vitriolic political backlash never before seen in this nation that longs to return us to the alleged “good ole days” of 1776 apparently by any means necessary! 1776 – that is, before our nation had matured enough to actually comprehend that all men and all women are indeed created equal and that all are born with certain inalienable God-given rights. The alleged “good ole days,” as I recently heard Ben Jealous explain to a crowd, in which the average and expected life span, even for white men, was around 33 years.
So, yes, there is no doubt that we have fulfilled and lived some of the unimaginable dreams of our mothers and fathers, of our grandmothers and grandfathers from their generation to ours. We have made great strides in tearing down the legal barriers to equality and justice. Yes, in just five short generations we have come a mighty long way, but as Dr. King once reminded the nation, we have a long, long way to go to reach the promise land of his dream.
For you see the era of Dr. King is not just a story about a great man, or a story about a race of people or even about the education of a historically misguided nation. It is much bigger than that. The era and legacy of Dr. King is a transformative moment in human history in which the world witnessed the power of the peaceable but relentless pursuit of a peoples’ inalienable rights.
It is the legacy of the unmatchable courage of men and women who awakened daily with the imminence of their own demise, but who in the face of such circumstances boldly stood and spoke the truth to power that made others cower.
At least parts of Dr. King’s dream are now touted by all but the most hateful of us as not only palatable but irrefutably right – that is, most rational people now honestly believe that the color of one’s skin should have no bearing on the opportunities and limitations that define our lives and our livelihood. However, that was not the whole dream:
Dr. King dreamed not only of little black boys and black girls holding hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers, but he understood how race and economics were inextricably tied and his dream therefore encompassed the dream of little poor girls and poor boys having the same educational opportunities as rich boys and rich girls.
When he and his colleagues launched the Poor People’s Campaign, Dr. King’s dream imagined a nation where all people could access the necessities of life -- affordable and decent housing, adequate healthcare and medical treatment, and livable wages.
Dr. King also dreamed that as a nation and world we would study war no more. That we would recognize the casualties of war are not just the estimated 100,000 to 1 million innocent civilians whose lives were cut down in Iraq, the casualties of war are not just the tens of thousands maimed and disabled civilians and veterans who barely escaped the horrors of war with their lives, the casualties of war are more than the night screams and terrors of the Iraqi children and the American soldiers who suffer the post traumatic stress of seeing other human beings destroyed, the casualties of war are far greater than the loss of human history in the Mesopotamian Valley where thousands of years of that history are recorded and are now buried under mounds of war-torn rubble. The casualties of war even exceed the trillions of dollars taken from the heart of a productive economy to be transferred to the coffers of the most powerful and rich corporations entrenched in the U.S. military industrial complex. Dr. King preached and understood that the casualties of war include the very soul of our nation and our world – the maturity of humankind – the principles, for which our foremothers and forefathers have lived, struggled and died.
My favorite King quote is and has always been a message he wrote from a Birmingham jail cell:
And it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, "Wait on time."
Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation.
And, I must agree with Dr. King, who agreed with Dante that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence is betrayal.
When I was in college, I had one of my first opportunities to serve as a mentor a young middle school girl, Tia. In fact, I was recruited specifically to be this young woman’s mentor because the other volunteers found her to be a bit too difficult and sassy to handle and, for whatever reason, it was assumed that I would be the perfect fit. During my first year of serving as her mentor, the City of East Palo Alto, which then rivaled Washington, D.C. as the nation’s murder capitol, closed down its one and only high school. So, the students were bused to the neighboring community of Menlo Park, which was predominantly wealthy and predominantly white. The next year, when Tia started at the new high school, she had quite a few difficulties. Her teacher requested a conference with her mother, but her mother was not able to attend so I went in her stead. Unbelievably, during the meeting, with Tia sitting right next to me, the teacher said, “It has been a nightmare since they shipped ‘these children’ here, it’s like dealing with animals in a zoo.” In that moment, I had a choice to silently acquiesce and finish the meeting. But, silence then would have been betrayal. My silence and acquiescence would have signaled to Tia that the problem lied with her; that she was nothing more than an animal that had escaped from the city boundaries meant to contain her. I simply could not be silent. I simply could not fail to advocate for Tia’s right to not only be educated, but to be respected. I educated that teacher that day and, I am proud to say, Tia defied every stereotype and limitation her teacher tried to impose. Today, she is a successful rising manager at Fortune 100 company, she is a homeowner and owner of several properties and she has single handedly lifted herself and her children as well as her mother and her siblings out of the poverty she lived as a child.
So, on the eve of the King Holiday, the message I have is: there is still work to do . . .
As long as every 3.5 seconds someone dies of hunger-related causes, every 11 seconds someone dies of AIDS and every 15 seconds someone dies of waterborne illnesses, there is still work to do.
As long as 24 million children are unable to access vaccinations for preventable common childhood diseases, almost 1 billion people have no access to clean water and 2.6 billion people have no basic sanitation, there is still work to do.
As long as 15 to 25% of women and 5 to 15 % of men in just our own country are coveted, molested and raped in the silence of night by beloved fathers, uncles, brothers, guardians, there is still work to do.
As long as girl children all around the world are forced to end their education, leave their parents’ home and become child brides or prostitutes before they reach the age of puberty, there is still work to do.
As long as women earn only $.75 for every dollar earned by a man for comparable work, there is still work to do.
As long as two-thirds of our adult population is obese or overweight and obesity-related type-2 diabetes is considered epidemic by health care professionals, there is still work to do.
As long as the United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world such that one in every 18 men in the United States is behind bars or being monitored and 44% of those prisoners are black, there is still work to do.
As long as human consumption patterns continue to destroy the Earth’s biophysical resources and ecosystems, when the scientific consensus is that human-induced global warming is a fact, there is work to do.
And, all of this work is fiercely urgent . . . leaving us to ask, if not us, then who, if not now, then when?
The answer of course is that the time for action is always right now and every revolution begins with just one person’s idea of a more just, sane and better world. We don’t have to all solve every problem, but we must each take it upon ourselves to be the solution for at least one problem. The work you do doesn’t have to lead to a Voting Rights Act, the dismantling of apartheid or worldwide nuclear disarmament to be meaningful or important. Perhaps it’s as simple as demonstrating and having a conversation with a male child about not accepting the privileges life may offer him because he is male or acknowledging and actively rejecting your own privileges – whether by your race, gender, sexual orientation, economic class, national origin or citizenship – and making sure whatever benefit you have derived from that privilege, it is available to all people. It may take the form of affording a job or a promotional or mentoring opportunity to someone who does not look like you or have the advantages you have, or simply paying attention and helping others pay attention to the products we purchase so that our children and grandchildren won’t have to figure out how to extract from their drinking water the chemicals we thoughtlessly and daily flush down the drain.
If you want to have a meaningful existence in this world, you must find a purpose in your life that is bigger than you and greater than the amount of material possessions you can collect before you die.
What Dr. King understood better than most is that we are all inextricably tied - there is no freedom for any of us unless there is freedom for all of us. And “us” is not narrowly limited to those who share our race, our gender, our sexual orientation, our national origin or geographic boundaries. Just because those who are marginalized may serve as our canaries in the mine does not mean that the poison we pump into out atmosphere won’t eventually cause our very own demise. It may not happen in our generation, but the effects of the dream or nightmare we create here and now will be felt in the next or the next or the next generation.
Two years ago when we buried my father, the chorus of an old freedom song reverberated in my mind for months. It was the soul stirring song written by one of the movement’s superstars, Ms. Bernice Johnson Reagon, which captured the words and spirit of her mentor, Ella Baker. Ms. Baker was an often behind the scenes powerhouse who advocated for participatory democracy that was truly by and for the people. She lived by the principle that Strong People Do Not Need Strong Leaders. She was also a fierce advocate for young people and the power that they could exert to change the world.
So as we reach that time of year where we all reflect on the life of Dr. King, I call on the spirit of Ella Baker who taught us that the movement did not and does not live and die by a single individual, no matter how great. Rather, it is an ongoing movement that requires all of us to participate as courageous foot soldiers and requires all of us to commit our lives to freedom. As Ms. Reagon Johnson perfectly captured in the powerful chorus of Ella’s Song:
We who believe in freedom cannot rest;
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.