As the eyes of the nation turn to Alabama this week to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, it gives us a moment to reflect on the progress we’ve made since that time, including the election of the nation’s first African-American president, and the work that remains ahead for the “Joshua generation.”
When then-Sen. Barack Obama addressed an overflow crowd at the Brown Chapel AME Church during the March 2007 commemoration of the march, he spoke of the Joshua generation, a biblical reference to one of Moses’ most loyal lieutenants and his work in ultimately guiding the escaped slaves of Egypt to the promised land.
Flanked by legendary civil rights leaders, including Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and the Rev. Joseph Lowery, Obama talked about how the Joshua generation had answered the call, and how it was time for the next generation to take up the charge.
“They took us 90 percent of the way there. We still got that 10 percent in order to cross over to the other side,” Obama said. “So the question, I guess, that I have today is, what’s called of us in this Joshua generation? What do we do in order to fulfill that legacy, to fulfill the obligations and the debt that we owe to those who allowed us to be here today?”
This question hangs heavy in light of recent events and the challenges that still face the African-American community. Because of the single generation of collective prosperity shared in the post-civil-rights era, African Americans have had a much harder time recovering from the economic recession. The names of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner also remind us that our young black men remain under assault, and that the fight for basic civil rights and civil liberties continues.
And as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act later this year, we wrestle with the notion of how to restore the act’s Section 5—gutted by the Supreme Court—as minority voting rights are unashamedly attacked across the nation.
Yes, indeed, the Joshua generation still has more work to do.
During his time in the White House, President Obama has taken on big challenges, not the least of which was bringing the nation back from the brink of economic collapse. He tackled issues that directly impact the lives of everyday Americans, and many African Americans in particular. Some of his most noteworthy accomplishments will have a significant impact on the black community:
* The Affordable Care Act provides an opportunity for African Americans, who suffer disproportionately from chronic illnesses, a chance to gain access to health insurance and critically needed care.
* Obama’s Fatherhood Initiative, in his first term, stressed the importance of fathers remaining in their children’s lives and being there to provide support, comfort and love.
* And the president followed this up with My Brother’s Keeper in his current term, stressing the importance of mentorship and support to help young men of color succeed—an effort that many believe will be his ongoing charge after he leaves the White House.
There have also been much-needed investments in education, access to housing and job training. However, those investments serve as a down payment on the sustained effort that will be needed long after Obama’s time in Washington has passed.
So as the president returns to Selma in 2015, we return, as a community, to the question offered in Selma eight years ago: What must we do to finish that final 10 percent and get to the promised land?
The truth is that the answer does not lie with a single man, even if he is the most powerful black man in the world. The answer lies with each of us working together, shoulder to shoulder, to meet the challenges and find real solutions.
How do we bind together to make our schools better for future generations? How do we bundle resources to invest in our communities, catalyze businesses and create jobs? How do we build bridges to future opportunities in emerging fields?
That’s really what the events of Selma were all about 50 years ago: fulfilling the right of African Americans to self-determination and a full share of what this country has to offer.
So, indeed, Mr. President, Joshua still has more work ahead.
Corey Ealons is a senior vice president with VOX Global, a Washington, D.C.-based public-affairs firm. He served as a White House communications aide to President Barack Obama. Follow him on Twitter.