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Maya L. Harris Headshot

The Moment for a Movement

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The civil rights movement in America is set to abound in prideful reflection, and deservedly so. Yet for all our success along justice's moral arc, it is also a moment for renewed drive and direction.

It may appear to some that 50 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of his dream, we are living it. King fought for a day when all people could vote, live and work where they please - and now the nation has twice elected a black man as president of the United States.

Indeed, many Americans view us as living in a post-racial era, as if we have cured racial bias. Nearly three out of four people say the country has largely moved beyond its racial problems, according to new polling conducted by the firm Beldon Russonello Strategists.

We as a nation are rightfully proud of our progress. We are not so eager, however, to confront the deep, divisive problems that still creep into daily life. Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, likens our attitude toward race to a sick patient who stops taking a full course of antibiotics after a few days, failing to really heal when feeling good is good enough.

"That's America on race," she says. "We're on Day 3 and we feel terrific."

And while the movement's achievements are undeniable, the unfinished work that remains is equally so. For all our hopes and boasts about progress, we are lulling ourselves into a false sense of contentment, a quiet crisis of gradualism that King warned us about.

There are still millions of people who endure fear, poverty or injustice because of their race, ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual orientation. Many communities still experience insidious bias everyday, and it can level a blow as devastatingly powerful as any blast from a fire hose.

The frustration such inequity creates tends to erupt in moments of national tension about race, which explains why the acquittal of the man who killed the Florida teen Trayvon Martin left so many unnerved and angered this summer. The search for a more perfect union, though, requires more than episodic protest. The fierce urgency of now must not just come along now and then.

This is a moment in need of a movement. We can start by acknowledging that the march for civil rights is not over.

We must do the difficult work of inviting honest conversations about race - ones not tainted by judgment or anger. President Obama recently did this in describing from personal experience the indignity of racial profiling as he challenged us to examine and wring out our biases.

Securing the next generation of change will require weaving together the disparate agendas of those yearning for dignity and justice. King knew this as he explored the connections of conscience between the civil rights movement, the Poor People's Campaign and opposing the war in Vietnam.

Likewise, we must build coalitions across seemingly different struggles to rectify voter suppression, inadequate public education, broken immigration and criminal justice systems, marriage inequality, scarce economic opportunity in communities of color, and a whole host of other causes rooted in the common soil of equality.

"If we don't come together, we're not going to make it," says the relentless labor leader Dolores Huerta. "It's all the same struggle."

We must also engage in the hard work of organizing people. We must do a better job of giving lift to the everyday stories of exclusion and inequality. We must talk more with those whose lives are not informed by discrimination and who do not see what we see.

The public is willing to help if the arguments are framed around ending unequal treatment. More than half those polled say they would get involved in an organized effort to end discrimination.

This is an opportune time to enlist.

Crowds will soon flood to the National Mall to commemorate the August 28, 1963, March on Washington, where King declared his dream of equal rights and economic opportunity. As a child of the civil rights movement, an heir to its legacy, and for years an advocate for it, I am excited by the spirit of reunion and remembrance that day will bring.

But supporting yesterday's change is easy; the harder question is whether we are able to rise to tomorrow's challenge.

That is exactly what this moment demands and this movement deserves.