In 1968, the world watched as America imploded. Our descent into the Vietnam War and the continuing struggles for civil rights drew stark contrasts for American voters. At the very moment that we needed visionary leadership on these issues, two of our greatest voices for peace and justice—Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy—were struck down. There was civil unrest on the streets and protests on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. When the smoke cleared, a president was elected who would magnify our divisions and ultimately resign in disgrace.
Many are drawing comparisons between 1968 and the present. We have a presidential candidate who suggests rounding up millions for deportation and wants to ban Muslims from the American Dream. We face daily reminders of injustices that we hoped we had overcome – growing fear about the state of race relations and violence in the streets that leaves young Black men dead and officers gunned down.
There is, however, one important difference between today and the 1960s: the confidence of progress. Our nation and the Black community have made tremendous progress since I was first elected to Congress in 1965. We defeated Jim Crow, opening a path for economic and political opportunity. America has twice elected an African American to the presidency. Black voices and the Black narrative are as influential and as powerful as they have ever been in every facet of our society.
I like to think my friend, Dr. King, is looking down with pride at how far we, as a people, have come.
As the former chairman and now Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee, I have dedicated my service to jobs, justice and peace. After decades of community complaints about police brutality, I chaired hearings in Los Angeles, Miami, New York City and Dallas, which helped build the record for passage of landmark legislation like the 1994 “Pattern and Practice” statute, which gives the Department of Justice the authority to investigate law enforcement discrimination and abuse in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore.
The loss of lives in Baton Rouge, suburban St. Paul and Dallas has left the nation in shock, as seemingly every day the media brings us news of violence borne of hate and intolerance. Modern technology and the advent of social media have made us all witnesses, just like the marches in Selma and Birmingham, making it impossible to dismiss them as fiction or someone else’s problem. We live these injustices first hand. When you see a man die before your eyes on camera, civilian or police officer, it changes your perception of humanity and invokes a response.
We see it.
We hear it.
We feel it.
Vivid images of police abuse galvanized our national resolve to pass civil rights legislation, like the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act; and are putting politicians on notice that simmering community unrest with the police has reached a critical point. The African American community has a growing coalition of allies; some White, some Hispanic, some Asian, and some who serve as police and who want their badges to mean something more. The daily reminders of injustice have forced us to measure the distance between Dr. King’s dream and our own reality—but they also give us the resolve to close it for good.
Despite our pain, we see reasons to be hopeful all around. We see it in the streets, where the Black Lives Matter movement is standing up for justice—countless men, women, girls and boys demanding to be heard.
We see it in police who want to see themselves as guardians, protecting their community, not warriors of an occupying force. We see it in officers like Montrell Jackson, who spoke of how “In uniform I get nasty hateful looks and out of uniform some consider me a threat.” He is a man who asked protesters, officers, friends, family and whoever to “Please don’t let hate infect your hearts.”
We see it in a Democratic presidential nominee, and countless community leaders who are committed to reforming our criminal justice system. We see it in the House and Senate, where several thoughtful, awakened Republicans are willing to work alongside us to address this issue.
Last year, the Judiciary Committee held a hearing on 21st Century Policing Strategies in order to begin addressing these issues at the federal level. I also introduced both the End Racial Profiling Act and the Law Enforcement Trust and Integrity Act around the same time. The Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee and I are currently developing a revised and more focused version of the Law Enforcement Trust and Integrity Act and just this past week, we joined together to form a bipartisan Congressional working group with a focus on finding common ground between police and the communities they are sworn to protect and serve.
The profound support for criminal justice reform that I have seen from all sides of the political spectrum and across our country is something we need to build upon. It’s not the only solution, but one of them.
Our work is far from done. We can’t bring back Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, or the hundreds of Black men and women who’ve lost their lives to excessive force. And we can’t bring back the officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge or others who’ve been killed while protecting their communities. But at a time when we face so much that challenges our faith and tries to break our spirit, we must dedicate ourselves to engaging the difficult issues so that we can make lasting change in our communities.
History shows us we have overcome great challenges. Now we have, within us and beside us, an intentionally peaceful and unified community that is better able to confront today’s challenges than ever before.
Rep. John Conyers represents Michigan’s 13th Congressional District and is the longest serving member of the House of Representatives. Follow him on Twitter @RepJohnConyers.