We Need to Teach Our Children the True Meaning of Racial Justice
2014 promises to be another year filled with well-deserved commemoration for hard-fought civil rights legislation, anniversaries and demonstrations. Yet if we focus on the past, without providing meaningful context for the present, we can obscure the complexity of the very struggles we seek to celebrate. The civil rights movement was a long, continuous struggle for justice in America, not a bedtime story with a beginning, middle and end. “Rosa sat, so Martin could run, so that Barack could fly,” is a nice sentiment but makes for poor history. We can best honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer and the countless unnamed souls who helped usher in a new freedom era by acknowledging the large task that is ahead of us. This means that even as we bask in the hard-won achievements of the recent past, including the election and re-election of America’s first black president, we have a clear-eyed picture of the challenges that remain.
The largest difference between the black community in 1964 and now is that 50 years ago, we knew we were being oppressed and made proactive, heroic and self-sacrificing efforts to transform systems of injustice and redeem America’s soul. As we begin the new year, let’s reclaim the style, voice and courage of this prophetic tradition of social transformation.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published in 2014 by Basic Books. Follow him on Twitter.