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In the distance, if you listen closely, you can hear the quiet footsteps of Those That Came Before. Descended from warriors, they silently crossed the threshold of the Door of No Return to involuntarily travel from their homeland across the Middle Passage, immigrating to a new world completely polar opposite of their familiars. You can hear the pause in their footsteps as the reality of their circumstance sets in, no one is coming to rescue them and this is now home. The peregrination begins anew but this time the noises are of feet firmly planting themselves one next to the other as they build an impenetrable foundation that will allow them to slowly and gently lift each other up onto each other’s shoulders and over time, via spiritual osmosis, to teach and encourage as many courageous generations as it takes to build this living, breathing wall of solace and hope that will someday answer the prayers of being allowed to live in an America sans violence and hate but instead in a society where there is acceptance, dignity, respect, equality, and justice for all.
“Millions didn’t make it but I was one of the ones that did…” Marvin Winans wrote these beautiful lyrics and his brother, Bebe, sang “Millions” at Oprah Winfrey’s weekend event celebrating “Selma and The Legends Who Paved The Way.”
2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the three Selma to Montgomery marches:
March 7, 1965: Blood Sunday: John Lewis and Hosea Williams attempted to lead approximately 600 people across the Edward Pettus Bridge and their efforts were thwarted by an army of state troopers and policemen who blinded the marchers with tear gas and beat them unmercifully with billy clubs and bullwhips.
March 9, 1965: Turnaround Tuesday: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led approximately 2000 people to Edward Pettus Bridge and once at the bridge told the protesters to disperse.
After Bloody Sunday, on March 15th, in his Special Message to Congress: The American Promise, President Lyndon Johnson said, “…the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes…Every device of which human ingenuity is capable has been used to deny this wrong….a century has passed…and yet the Negro is not equal. And the promise is unkept.”
March 25, 1965: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led this successful four-day march from Selma to Montgomery with approximately 25,000 protesters escorted by 1,000 policemen and 2,000 military troops.
In his commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches, President Obama remarked,
“We know the march is not yet over. We know the race is not yet won. We know that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged, all of us, by the content of our character requires admitting as much, facing up to the truth…We honor those who walked so we could run. We must run so our children can soar. And we will not grow weary. For we believe in the power of an awesome God, and we believe in this country’s sacred promise.”
Dr. Daryl Michael Scott, professor of history at Howard University and president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, said, “There’s a thirst for history that exists in the African-American community that has no true counterpart in the mainstream culture. We are now almost officially the keepers of the American memory because nobody else wants to remember…Americans are mis-educated. They don’t know themselves, they don’t know what they’ve built, and therefore it can so easily be taken away from them.”
Dr. Scott’s thoughts are illustrated every February. As a child, I learned that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream and marched around the country telling it to people; George Washington Carver invented things out of peanuts; Booker T. Washington was an educator that opened a school; and Harriet Tubman was a fugitive and the conductor of the Underground Railroad. Like many of my peers, college added to these meager sentences.
Negro History week is the creation of historian Carter G. Woodson, who expanded the celebration of two Americans who fought for African-American equality, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass both celebrate birthdays in February. Harriet Tubman’s first name is not even Harriet. She not only helped hundreds of slaves escape to freedom but she also served in the Civil War as a cook, nurse, armed scout, and spy.
Booker T. Washington opened the historical Tuskegee Institute, and was an advisor on racial matters for both Presidents Taft and Roosevelt and secretly financed court cases dealing with segregation. George Washington Carver did invent things out of peanuts, over one hundred products to be exact, including dyes, plastics, and even gasoline.
Earlier this year, in February, the PBS News Hour reported on a 21-year-old, young man, Justin Giuliano, who decided to offer American history Tweets, #BlackHistoryYouDidntLearnInSchool, about people and events he believes deserves to be remembered: “Black history is usually reserved for a few historical figures, and even then they are pacified or white-washed. I really wanted to change the conversation around black history this year.”
Ideas have improved, slowly. During his Selma address, President Obama remarked, “To deny this progress, this hard-won progress – our progress – would be to rob us of our own agency, our own capacity, our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.”
As Martin Luther King, Jr. said after Bloody Sunday, “The pattern of their feet as they walked through Jim Crow barriers in the great stride toward freedom is the thunder of the marching men of Joshua and the world rocks beneath their tread…How long will it take? Not long.”
On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act which prohibited racial or political barriers or election practices that would deny African-Americans their right to vote; and require any jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to receive federal approval before they could change and implement any election laws. In 1970, 1975, and 1982 the sitting Presidents extended the Voting Rights Act. In 2006, Congress extended the Voting Rights Act for an additional 25 years. In 2013, the United States Supreme Court opined that the rescinding of the requirement of historically discriminatory jurisdictions needing federal approval prior to changing and implementing election laws is “not designed to punish for the past; its purpose is to ensure a better future.”
Today’s American history is filled with cultures and ethnicities wrought with the same vitriolic prejudices, biases, stereotypes, and racism. Young people in the 50s and 60s made courageous decisions to demand change and successfully obtain federal civil rights. In 2015, we have Millennial grassroots movements like Million Hoodies, Hands Up United, the Black Youth Project, and the Dream Defenders. These groups work together to change even more local and federal policies and laws.
Tory Russell, founder of Hands Up United, said, “This is not the civil rights movement. This is the oppressed people’s movement. So, when you see us, you’re going to [see] some gay folk, you’re going to [see] some queer folk, you’re going to [see] some poor black folk, you’re going to [see] some brown folk, you’re going to [see] some white people. And we’re all out here for the same reasons. We want to be free.”
The Millennial activists are equally as tenacious and focused as those that led and crossed the infamous Edward Pettus Bridge. The Millennials march for justice and change. Jessica Pierce of the Black Youth Project states, “We’re doing it by technology, but we’re also doing all the tried-and-true methods as well…we’re on the computers and we’re also in the streets…”
Millennials realize that their voices need to reach the ears of anyone in a position that can affect the necessary changes. Ashley Yates of Millennial Activist United describes her meeting with President Obama: “He didn’t come from a place of the highest authority in the land. He came from a place of – ‘let’s have a conversation about it.’”
I believe there are probably many people who are surprised that this generation is actively concerned about the future of our nation and our place in the world. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they know more about history than I did. They are grateful for every single action and step taken by their ancestors and Civil Rights predecessors.
Yates summed it up beautifully: “The day we met with the president was…the 59th anniversary of Rosa Parks not getting up from her seat. We definitely realize that we’re standing on the shoulders of the people who came before us.”
CeeJaye @CeeJayeWrites is a freelance writer and self-proclaimed Literary Chameleon. Her work includes nearly four years as a columnist for London’s LIVE Magazine, penning an episodic series for N.Y. Cable Access Television, and co-authoring “Racism and Real Life” for academic journal, The Radical Teacher. Living abroad heightened Cee Jaye’s appreciation for food, art, and travel. Currently, she resides in Southern California with her family and has completed her first novel.