As two dozen of us marched to the midpoint of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Saturday where 50 years ago protesters pushing for voting rights including Hosea Williams and (now Congressman) John Lewis were beaten and tear gassed, I stood directly behind President Obama and next to the wheelchair of 103-year-old activist Amelia Boynton Robinson who was beaten on that very bridge decades earlier. Despite being attacked by police on what became known as "Bloody Sunday", she continued to register voters and push for equality. And on Saturday, she was speaking with one of the results of that unyielding fight -- the first African American president of the United States. As President Obama, the first family, former President George W. Bush and others made their way to the halfway point of the bridge, I thought about how 50 years ago, peaceful demonstrators were blocked from finishing their march across the bridge to Montgomery, Alabama. But I also thought about 50 years from now, and how the leaders and citizens of tomorrow will judge us based on what we did to keep the nation progressing forward. This weekend was a commemoration of a significant moment in history, but it was also a call to keep marching forward on the road ahead for our work is far from done.
On Sunday, I was honored to deliver a sermon at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, which was the headquarter church for protesters and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the fight for civil rights, and it remains a historic site today. As I sat in the pulpit preparing to speak, next to me were civil rights icons from a generation ahead of me like former Ambassador Andrew Young and Reverend Jesse Jackson, as well as activists from my generation like Martin Luther King III and Sherrilyn Ifill, President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Seated in the front row were Attorney General Eric Holder, Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch and other Cabinet members. Again, it was a testament to how far we have come, but the continuing challenges we face together reinforce the notion that we cannot cease in our efforts.
"First and foremost, we have to recognize that one day's commemoration, no matter how special, is not enough," said President Obama in a rousing speech on Saturday. "The American experiment in self-government gives work and purpose to each generation. Selma teaches us, as well, that action requires that we shed our cynicism. For when it comes to the pursuit of justice, we can afford neither complacency nor despair."
He is absolutely correct.
As we gathered and marched in Selma, another unarmed teenager was killed by police under questionable circumstances in Madison, Wisconsin. The officer accused of killing 19-year-old Tony Robinson was apparently involved and cleared in another shooting incident in the past as well. At the same time, we are learning of a video circulating online allegedly showing members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma singing a despicable, racist chant in which they can be heard saying "There will never be a n****r in SAE." The national office of the fraternity has closed the chapter and suspended its members, and the university says it is investigating the incident. These are reminders that we must renew our resolve in driving out hate and creating a society where all of our children can live in peace without fear from attacks by others, including by police.
At the church on Sunday, the mother of police chokehold victim Eric Garner, and the parents of Michael Brown sat with us. Clearly, we must continue the fight around federal oversight of officer-involved shootings. A special prosecutor must be brought in to investigate police shootings to take local politics and the appearance of a conflict of interest out of the process. We must peacefully organize and demand change as the National Action Network December 13th march on Washington emphasized. We must lower the jurisdictional threshold to qualify cases for civil rights violations -- even AG Holder has raised this issue now. These are clear criminal justice reforms that scream for our activism and persistent attention.
We must also address the Shelby County v. Holder decision which essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act itself by ruling Section 4 unconstitutional. The Supreme Court's decision in effect removed the map and need for preconditions before voting procedures can be changed in historically established discriminatory states and/or counties. This has led to states and counties changing the amount of days for early voting and Sunday voting, the creation of harsh new ID requirements and other schemes that have proven to lessen the ability of minorities, young people, seniors and the poor to vote. Because states and jurisdictions no longer need preclearance, they can take these measures and more at will or at whim. This clearly undermines the very core of what we celebrated this weekend.
Income inequality, more specifically, the gap between blacks and whites economically is the same as it was 50 years prior. Yes, we crossed the bridge half a century ago, and we crossed it again in a reenactment with the president this weekend, but 50 years from now at the 100th anniversary, we will be judged not by whether we brought a Black president to the bridge, but by what we did on the road ahead leading to the next five decades.
If we get lost in celebration (which was grand), and not concentrate on the continuation which is the road ahead, 50 years from now, they will not be kind to us. The bridge to the future is before us; it's up to us to cross over together the right way.