Commemorating Civil Rights, But Not Celebrating Too Much

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I’m 19 years old, and I’m always questioning if my actions are really worth anything. It’s hard for me to tell if I’m able to change the world around me. But when I attended an event marking the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, I learned about my potential as a young person, as I listened to thought leaders reflect on the future of African Americans in the United States.

Photo Caption 4: The crowd reacts at the Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act on Wednesday, June 18, 2014 at Beebe Memorial Cathedral in Oakland. (Photo credit: Photographers@Large).
The crowd reacts at the Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act on Wednesday, June 18, 2014 at Beebe Memorial Cathedral in Oakland. (Photo credit: Photographers@Large).

The event was in Beebe Memorial Cathedral in Oakland, and was sponsored by Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson’s office. The church was tall, beautiful, and not air-conditioned. Most importantly, small paper fans were easy to access, for which I was grateful. The audience packed every pew in the church, and the faces resembled the diverse Bay Area. People young and old, of different races had come out to hear famous speakers, local musicians, and watch a preview of a documentary called, “Freedom Summer,” airing soon on PBS.

Clayborne Carson, history professor at Stanford University, spoke first. He is the director of the Martin Luther King Papers Project, an effort to edit and publish the sermons, articles and unpublished writings of Dr. King. Carson reminded us that while we should celebrate the passage of the Civil Rights Act, we should not celebrate too much. “That legislation could be reversed tomorrow. So never believe that a piece of paper represents your rights,” he said.

Next, Angela Davis, renowned activist and lecturer, introduced the guest of honor: Howard Moore Jr.. Moore is the lawyer who defended Angela Davis when she was accused of conspiracy, kidnapping, and more. He also was the chief defense lawyer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that was  integral to the civil rights movement.  Moore received the Freedom Warrior Medal in honor of his commitment to the struggle for equality in the court system. In Moore’s speech, he focused on the challenges that African Americans still face today. He said:

“When you look at the question of education and schooling — when the majority of African American children from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, are in segregated, substandard schools with substandard teachers — how can we have prepare [students] to function effectively in the 21st century when we can’t get an education? … What’s the grand plan for us? Why are there so many of us in prison?”

The spirit of the event was both a celebration and a call to arms. Most of the speakers acknowledged that people in our country still struggle with racial discrimination or gaining full legal status and equal rights.

With a system that is still so fraught with inequality, it can be hard to remember that things were worse a generation or two ago — especially for someone my age. Voting rights were won for African Americans only 50 years ago. But one of the main messages that came across at the event was that students my age were the reason things changed. They saw a flaw in society and they went out and corrected it. There was an air of gratitude for the perseverance and strength of young people in the 60’s, and hope for the youth of the future.

But today, minority youth live in areas that are getting poorer and poorer. Howard Moore Jr. spoke about historically black colleges and universities failing and affirmative action policies disappearing. But he reiterated that we can’t give up.

After all, according to Clayborne Carson, the civil rights movement was about much more than a piece of legislation. He explained that the movement was really about questioning the Declaration of Independence, which promised the freedom of all men under God. Carson actually had a hand in designing the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington, and said he strategically pointed King’s gaze towards the Thomas Jefferson memorial, as if the two men were in dialogue.

During the event, I realized that I might not get to see big social change in my lifetime. W.E.B. Dubois and Ella Baker didn’t get to see the March on Washington, an event that symbolized the fruits of their labor. But they worked for a better future for others. My generation of change-seekers has to learn to accept this lesson. As Clayborne Carson put it, we must be “long-distance runners” and take pleasure in small victories.

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