01/01/2013 09:19 am ET Updated Mar 03, 2013

To Our Ancestors With Gratitude

This letter is part of our "Letters to Our Ancestors" project. In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, we've asked members of our community to share their own letters to our forefathers. With these letters, we hope to look back on the progress our community has made and give thanks to those who helped pave the way. You can see them all here.

Dear Ancestors,

It's easy to take for granted how far America has come in the 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation. Consider that in just a few weeks we will be inaugurating an African American to fulfill his second term as president of the United States.

Like many African Americans of my generation, I often think of your struggles which gave root to the privileges I enjoy today. I'm alive to see the first African American president. African Americans serve in all levels of government, are entrepreneurs, doctors and lawyers, and the list goes on and on.

On this Emancipation anniversary I find myself in deep thought about how my generation should spend the next 150 years. Building upon your example, we've seen how much can be accomplished in 150 years -- from abolishing slavery, securing the right to vote and having an African American serve as president of the very same country which once held blacks in bondage.

My generation has a lot in common with the freedmen of the Emancipation era. Much like the election of Barack Obama opens our eyes to new levels of possibilities, so, too, did the freedmen walk a little taller with their hopes for a brighter future after gaining their freedom.

If we want our next 150 years to be as powerful as the last, I believe there is so much we can learn from you -- mainly the evils of complacency. Where would we be if freedmen were complacent with the emancipation proclamation even though it did not outlaw slavery or make them citizens? Had you lost your nerve to push forward and continue perfecting our union we may never have seen the momentum for the 13th Amendment and subsequent victories for voting rights.

Fast forward to today. What will future generations say about us at the 300th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation if we are complacent with just having an African American in the White House? I imagine they'd want to know why we didn't do more to preserve voting rights from voter ID law assaults or why we didn't yell louder when we were losing a generation of black men to an inequitable criminal justice system. How about education? I shudder to think what they might say about us if we were complacent with having an African American in the White House but turned a blind eye to the inequities in our education system that threatens to relegate future generations of black children to lives in poverty.

The fierce urgency of now, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referenced, is a lasting gift that you have left to us. My generation is still writing our own chapter for how we choose to use this gift but are so fortunate to have the roadmap you blazed for us. The next 150 years must be about applying those lessons to the problems of today. It must be a period of continued urgency on several of the issues I listed above as well as those that may arise in the future which seek to undermine or roll back the clock on so many hard fought advancements.

That's what I feel in my heart we owe to you -- a commitment to press forward even in the face of what appears to be success.

We shouldn't just celebrate having an evolved enough society willing to elect an African American as president. We should challenge that society to also deal with the continued inequities within its ranks -- just as you did when you saw the inequities that still remained when granted your freedom.

I believe we owe it to you to throw caution to the wind. Your experience tells us that in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds change can occur if a few courageous souls are willing to speak up and speak out against the ills that plague our society.

In the coming weeks as we beam with pride that an African American can serve two terms as the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, we must also take time to recommit ourselves to pressing forward on the big issues of our day.

I remain grateful to you for your courage in pressing forward. I'm inspired by your tenacity in the face of unimaginable adversity. Yours are the shoulders from which today's generation must stand to write our own history and shape the next 150 years.

With profound gratitude -

Representative Karen Bass (D-CA)