In his autobiography Walking With the Wind, John Lewis describes the morning of the 1963 March on Washington. The most prominent civil rights leaders -- Dr. King, Bayard Rustin, Lewis and others -- were in meetings at the Capitol and realized that the march had started without them. They watched as tens of thousands of people poured into the streets, seemingly leaderless.
"It was truly awesome, the most incredible thing I'd ever seen in my life," Lewis wrote. "I remember thinking, There goes America. We were supposed to be the leaders of the march, but the march was all around us, already taking off, already gone."
That story has stayed with me for years, because it perfectly illustrates the power of a grassroots movement, that tipping point moment where the will of the people refuses to be contained. The energy Lewis witnessed was a groundswell that led directly to the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act and the recently-gutted Voting Rights Act.
Unfortunately, five decades after Dr. King delivered his now-famous "I Have a Dream" speech, for many back folks, "the Dream" has been interrupted. Black men are being incarcerated at alarming rates, as a for-profit prison industry continues to cash in off the pain of black families; meanwhile, sentencing guidelines, drug laws and policies like Stop and Frisk work systemically to keep prisons packed with people of color. Black unemployment remains disproportionately high; nonetheless, right wing legislators are readying themselves to fight for more cuts to the social safety net when Congress resumes. And, despite evidence of widespread, coordinated attacks on voter freedom, two months ago the US Supreme Court gutted key protections from the Voting Rights Act, the signature achievement of the Civil Rights Movement.
But if anything, black folks are resilient. Look no further than North Carolina, where for the past three months people have been staging weekly protests against the radical agenda of Governor Pat McClory and his Republican supporters in the state legislature. They are angry about a drastic new voter ID law, about cuts to public education and many other issues that go beyond partisan politics because they directly impact the well-being and future of the state's most vulnerable citizens.
The protests, known as Moral Mondays, have only swelled as the police have swooped down and arrested hundreds of the participants. As the Rev. Rodney Sadler of Charlotte said a few days ago: "We are truly fighting for the soul of North Carolina."
My organization, ColorOfChange.org, stands with the protesters. We have campaigned ceaselessly against discriminatory voter ID laws that use the myth of widespread voter fraud to disenfranchise minorities and the poor. We have denounced lobbying groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has sought to introduce discriminatory voter identification laws, as well as dangerous "Stand Your Ground" laws. We have spoken out against a criminal justice system that continues to incarcerate men of color at a disproportionate rate and increasingly seeks to criminalize juveniles the same way it criminalizes adults.
To stand up to the powerful interests driving our politics, we need to recapture the energy and moral authority of the thousands who marched in 1963 and we also need to harness the energies of our own generation to push for freedoms beyond those dreamed of on the Washington Mall 50 years ago. We need to fight abusive corporate interests as well as the dysfunctions in our government. We need to guarantee the right of all voters to express themselves at the ballot box, ideally through a constitutional amendment. We need a fair criminal justice system that doesn't profit from people's pain. And, just as much as we did in the era of Selma and Birmingham and the March on Washington, we need a media environment that values black people. But we can't just fight our opponents. Led by the grassroots, we must continue to march for a bolder, more aspirational vision for our future. We must march for newer dreams.