I have to admit that I was silent after the verdict in July. I could say that I was just returning from vacation, or that my mind was elsewhere. The truth is that I did not know what to say. Trayvon’s death, by itself, was a tragedy. The laws of Florida that permitted George Zimmerman to walk away—both immediately after the event and again after the verdict—are a disgrace to all Americans. Nevertheless, the verdict was based on those impossibly unjust laws. What I can say is that we need to work to change unjust laws that promote and excuse gun violence. We need to work to change unjust laws that exclude citizens from the voting booth on flimsy and supposedly innocent grounds of preventing non-existent voter fraud.
On the other hand, the confluence of these events with the 50th anniversary of the March for Jobs and Freedom offers us a magnificent opportunity. As I listened to the speakers at the Lincoln Memorial on this historic anniversary, I was moved and inspired. Just when we suspect that nothing has changed, John Lewis dramatically described how his life was changed; that in place of “separate but equal” our country has made it possible for a leader in the civil rights movement to become a US congressman. Just when we are tempted to believe that the gap between whites and blacks is wider than ever, President Jimmy Carter paid homage to those brave leaders in 1963, men and women, labor organizers and civil rights activists, who made the march possible and changed our country forever. Just when we feel despair over the political gridlock and polarization that has created seemingly insurmountable obstacles to justice, President Bill Clinton urged us to draw on the examples of the leaders of the past to stop complaining and to start working for change.
And then, our first African-American president took the podium, and with humility spoke in the place where Martin Luther King, Jr. had roused a nation with words that continue to vibrate across state borders and political divides. If you missed the speech, his words are worth reading. In fact, I plan to quote them at the next Martin Luther King Day observance.
It’s true that the milestone of electing an African-American president does not excuse the imprisonment of more African Americans than the number of slaves in 1850.
It’s true that while Dr. King’s speech spurred the civil rights movement as a national priority, the focus on jobs went unanswered, and the economic situation of the masses of people of color in the US is no better today than it was in 1963.
It’s true that while the concrete walls of segregation were torn down, the invisible walls that lead to racial profiling, suspicion of people of color remain.
But when we have an opportunity, like today, to stop and remember, to celebrate our achievements, to honor the brave men and women who courageously risked everything, including their lives, when the speeches are broadcast across the country and the event is publicized throughout our land, we are all stronger. And the walls that divide us will surely come down. Not by hope alone, but by actions fueled by hope and conviction.
N.B. Thirty years ago, Brian and I, returning to Washington D.C. from our honeymoon in Cape May, attended the 20th anniversary of the March for Jobs and Freedom.
Looking at photos from that event, I’m struck by our youthful naiveté and the blissful confidence that change comes easily.
Today’s anniversary appears to be more sober; the celebration is more reflective.
Today may be one of the greatest moments of Barack Obama’s presidency, a rare moment when he can offer his personal gratitude for all he has received and all he has (so far) accomplished. It was a true moment of authenticity for him, not only as an African-American but also as a community organizer. He may not be the preacher MLK was, but by his very being, he preached a powerful sermon at the Lincoln Memorial in 2013.