07/18/2013 10:13 am ET Updated Sep 17, 2013

Are We There Yet?

On Sunday, July 14, the day after the stunning announcement that George Zimmerman was cleared of all charges in the killing of Trayvon Martin, "Are We There Yet?" was the title of the sermon by Reverend Nicholas S. Richards, Assistant Minister of Global Outreach, Abyssinian Baptist Church, where I am a member. He reflected on a scenario that many parents who have travelled on car trips with young children know all too well: Children repeatedly, and sometimes incessantly, ask, "Are we there yet?"

In the context of the Zimmerman verdict, that question is indeed relevant and timely. Rev. Richards noted that although we have come far enough to have a black president, there is, nevertheless, still a Trayvon Martin -- and, I must add, many other Trayvon Martins. Rev. Richards' sermon touched on poverty, poor quality of education, high drop-out rates, high unemployment, high incarceration rates, and health disparities based on race and ethnicity that impede social justice.

The message of the sermon affected me on personal, spiritual, and emotional levels. Having grown up in the segregated South in Birmingham, Ala., I fully understand that if left up to those in power during the 1950s and '60s, I would not have had the opportunity to receive a decent education or move beyond the marginal circumstances of my family.

For you see, George W. Wallace was governor of Alabama and Eugene "Bull" Connor was the police commissioner in Birmingham. Both were mean men who were intent on keeping "coloreds" in our place. They fought to keep intact the segregation laws of the city and state that denied opportunities on the basis of race, including where you lived, where you went to school, and where you worshipped.

I am the beneficiary of the opportunities, privileges, and rights that were gained through the 1963 civil rights movement: voting rights, educational opportunities, employment opportunities, improved housing, and career choices, among others. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are both direct outcomes of the struggles and challenges that opened doors to opportunities from which black people had been restricted and from which we now benefit.

Yet, 50 years later, how far have we really come? Trayvon Martin's "right to life" was dismissed with announcement of the verdict, and the Supreme Court recently struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.

In his book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., recognized that while highly successful gains were made as a result of protest marches, boycotts, and other forms of civil disobedience, it was but one stage of the long journey for peace, equality, and justice for all.

Today, while the colored/white signs are gone, the needs of people who are locked out, pushed out, or left out are great and growing every day. Racial divides continue to be deeply rooted. Embedded in judicial laws and structural systems, they are often more covert than the terrifying racial violence that was all too frequent during the '50s and '60s, and they must be uncovered and confronted.

Many chronic inequalities persist; we must put our collective minds, talents, and energies to work to overcome the challenges we still face -- acts of intimidation, rampant poverty, and lack of educational opportunity and access to health care, to name a few -- in order to make changes in our lifetime.

Some examples:

  • In 2006, in an incident that became known as the Jena Six, six black students in Jena, La., were followed by white students who hung three hangman's nooses; a fight between the two groups ensued, and the black students were arrested. Only after overwhelming nationwide protest were they released, but they still faced judicial issues.
  • In 1954, in its landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled public school segregation to be unconstitutional. Yet in 2007, more than five decades later, the U.S. Supreme Court declared voluntary school integration programs in Seattle, Wash., and Louisville, Ky., unconstitutional.
  • In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared a "War on Poverty," yet in 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that as of 2011, a staggering 28 percent of the estimated 46 million Americans living in poverty were black Americans.
  • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) annually reports that in virtually every disease epidemic -- from cancer and HIV/AIDS to obesity -- the rates for blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately higher than for whites.

And now, in 2013, we have the Trayvon Martin verdict.

It is true that we can point to significant gains in civil rights, starting in my own hometown of Birmingham. But there is clearly still much to be done, and so the struggle continues. Therefore, my response to the question "Are we there yet?" is a resounding "NO!"

We must continue to be at the forefront, waging the battle on behalf of all oppressed people, fighting for accessible, quality health care and education in our schools, as we know that the road to success in life is so much harder without health care and a good education.

We must work together, people from all races, ethnicities, and religions, to change lives, transform communities, and acknowledge the dignity, worth, and humanity of all of us. Recalling the words of the late Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., "What's in your hands?" we have the ability to influence the outcome of events through voting power, buying power, and so much more.

We cannot afford to remain silent. In the words of Dr. King, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter." We must continue to demand that our government officials develop policies and allocate resources to ensure that the disadvantaged get the programs and support they need to become self-sufficient. We must continue to demand corporate responsibility from the private sector to invest in healthy and livable communities. And, we must continue to demand equal justice that values and protects the lives of all people.

From my very humble beginnings and marginal conditions growing up in the segregated South, I know that more can be done. I know struggle and I know success. I know that both require giving something of ourselves, working and daring to keep other people's dreams alive, while never abandoning our own. I am committed to doing what must be done -- are you?