“I want you to think about this: there will be a Negro president of this country. There will not be the country we are sitting in now.” Fifty years ago, in the spring of 1963, James Baldwin said this to a group of discouraged young Black men who could not find work in San Francisco. He was only half-right.
When he made this statement, Baldwin was filming a documentary on the high unemployment and poverty rates of Blacks in San Francisco to highlight the fact that covert racism there was just as dangerous, if not more so, than the overt racism occurring in Mississippi. A few months later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would famously lead the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Ironically, in 2013, we have the Black president Baldwin was certain we’d have, but we also still have a country where Black unemployment sits, uncomfortably, at twice the rate of Whites–the exact same rate it’s been at for the past 50 years.
Today, according to the AFL-CIO: 45% of Black children live in poor neighborhoods, compared to 12% of White children; 74% of Black children go to predominantly minority schools with far fewer resources than predominantly White schools; and 36% of Blacks who are employed do not even make a living wage.
So, we marched again. The Saturday before the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech, we marched in the balmy heat of Washington, D.C. And we remembered the sacrifice of those who marched before us, with lead speaker and march organizer Rev. Al Sharpton reminding us that we are at least as far as we are because “some unlettered grandmas who never saw the inside of a college campus put their bodies on the line in Alabama and Mississippi and sponsored you up here.” And we’re grateful. But the stats are the stats, and we’re still not done.
So others, closed out by President Obama, marched one more time, last Wednesday, in a D.C. drizzle. Though devoid of substantive policy and a little victim-blamey, the president’s speech was stirring, reminding us that, “The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but it doesn't bend on its own. To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency.”
That’s a call to arms and people of faith, especially, need to respond to it.
It was telling—but not surprising—that no republican members of Congress or GOP leaders of any kind accepted invitations to speak or attend the March anniversary events last week. What saddened me, however, was that at Saturday’s march, during what I’ve dubbed the “sweet hour of prayer,” I heard no prayers lifted up to any besides Jesus Christ. A devout Christian, I recognized a group of traditionally dressed Sikhs on my right and a group of traditionally dressed Muslims standing on my left. Surely, Jewish people and Rastafari, yogis and Nation of Islam members, atheists and the solely spiritual all stood on that Mall together that day. The crowd at least understood that people from all faiths and walks of life need to be awake, aware and involved.
Because what good is belief in an almighty God if it does not embolden you to do great things to protect and defend His creation on Earth? What use is a spiritual life if you’re not living to ensure the basics of humanity—food, clothing, shelter, an education and a living wage—are provided for all? How can we claim a connection to God and ignore the plight of our brothers and sisters whom we walk past on the street every day? And how can we be spirit-filled yet silent while race, class and gender intersect to determine the intensity of our oppression? It is not possible.
Dr. King, Malcom X, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela – all of these civil rights leaders in their corners of the world were willing to be jailed, ridiculed, and to give their very lives to work against the injustice of their time because they knew a better world was possible on Earth and an even greater world existed beyond this one. But believing in the beauty and perfection of a heaven did not fill them with apathy for the suffering here and now. Instead, it empowered them to bring heaven to Earth. That obligation is ours, as well.
As Jamie Foxx said at Wednesday’s March, it’s time to do something besides just showing up. It’s time to do something that matters.
And there is so much to do.
In June, the Supreme Court gutted section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the section necessary to prevent southern states with a history of racial discrimination from enacting voting laws without review by the Department of Justice. Ever since President Obama’s victory in 2008, the GOP heads in southern states have made it their mission to make it as difficult as possible for minorities to vote – and they are succeeding. It is now up to Congress to pass a new law to restore what the Supreme Court has diluted. That means we can start by pressuring our members of Congress to get it done.
We’ve got to speak to our members of Congress about raising the debt ceiling to prevent the government from shutting down, federal workers from being furloughed and even more jobs from being lost. We’ve got to put representatives in Congress who will stop funding unnecessary military action in foreign countries and will instead reinvest those funds in our infrastructure here at home, for roads and bridges and to rebuild crumbling schools.
We must build communities that will invest in and help raise and mentor our children. There is no worthier cause. And we must get involved in local politics: everything from the school board elections that choose what textbooks our children will use to our state elections to prevent legislators from enacting racist laws like “Stand Your Ground” and “Stop and Frisk.”
We shouldn’t have to wait for another Trayvon Martin before we wake up to the laws our government is passing right under our noses. We don’t have 50 more years to wait and we don’t have any more bodies to spare. To pretend like we do is sin.
As James Baldwin so rightly said over 50 years ago, “The challenge is in the moment. The time is always now.”
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