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Come Too Far

I hear black folks arguing all the time about whether there has, in fact, been any progress. Isn'titself an undeniable demonstration of progress for black folks?
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I experienced many emotions watching the incredible motion picture, Selma, this past weekend. There was pride. There was pain for every blow and every death it took for our country to heed the call of the civil rights movement and grant Black Americans the right to vote. There was confusion watching the perpetrators of such violence and rabid resistance. How did Selma's Sherriff Jim Clark, Governor Wallace, and all the white folks that watched beatings for entertainment rationalize depriving people of human dignity? There was admiration for Martin Luther King which turned to awe of his leadership in the face of such high costs and a heavy burden on the home front and on the streets.

But gratitude was the strongest feeling I had and the one I couldn't help but utter out loud. "Thank You. Thank you. Thank you," I kept saying in the theater. Thank you strong, courageous, black, young and old, known and unnamed sisters and brothers for standing up so I can sit down here on a Saturday afternoon in all my opportunity and watch this movie. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been my hero since I was a little girl, but something wonderful about this film allowed me to fully appreciate how each humiliation suffered by these brave souls, many of them everyday working folks, cleared a path for me. Without them, there is no me as I am now-the working class black girl from Baltimore who finds herself being educated by and working in some of the most elite institutions in the world.

King was taken from us the night before my 8th birthday. I lived forward, adopting King's dream as my own vision, my calling, to become someone who would be the embodiment of the ideals he espoused. After King's assassination, our country seemed to believe those ideals too; all around me the doors of opportunity swung open. The Baltimore Fire Department hired more black men like my father. Swimming pools were installed in our sweltering summer neighborhoods, and math enrichment classes were funded for middle schoolers. The government created minimum wage jobs so that 14 year-olds could work in the summer, allowing us to lighten the burden of our parents who were working several jobs.

I took three buses to a school that had been out of reach before because it was out of my district, and Pell Grants made it easier to pay for college. Then a wonderful white lady from Barnard came looking for girls with potential, and convinced my mom that I should leave the cocoon of Baltimore for the big city of New York. So many of these opportunities came through new laws, pushed by politicians who were voted in, or made possible because the opponents of progress were voted out (or knew they could be voted out if they didn't get with the program).

But what do we do now with all of these victories won? All this progress? I hear black folks arguing all the time about whether there has, in fact, been any progress. Isn't Selma itself an undeniable demonstration of progress for black folks? The film has a brilliant black woman director, Ava DuVernay, and features talented black actors. Some of the powerful backers behind this film are black. Together this team has produced cinematic excellence about the power of the people to change their lives for the better and expose the inhumanity of the police, local and federal governments, even the henchmen at the FBI.

Having a black president who couldn't have been elected without the black vote is another example of progress. Leaving the film I hoped that every young black person would go and see what was sacrificed so that it could jolt them out of the malaise and apathy that too many of them have toward the political process. The vote was secured in order to vote out the perpetrators of injustice, yet, as Abernathy and King discussed in the film, it's hard to get people to participate in the political process if they are hungry and lack access to education.

It appears instead that the hope and possibility that I experience every morning is not the case for so many black and brown and poor people in our country in 2015. We can see even more clearly now how interrelated political and economic justice are. King was murdered in Memphis where he was trying to focus on economic justice by leading a march on behalf of striking black sanitation workers. When I look at the protests ringing in our streets today over the racially motivated violence against black and brown communities, especially men in these communities; when I look at the criminal justice system as a whole, or the economic, educational and health disparities between the races, I feel like we are in a time warp.

I know also that many professionals working on diversity in their organizations, feel that same way -- that progress is glacial and even sometimes seems to reverse. People of color come and go from their organizations, struggling unsuccessfully to navigate the invisible waters of implicit, unconscious and subtle bias and barriers to success. What are the conditions necessary for all people in this country to push through again as they did in Selma?

Who is responsible for King's dream to flourish? There are many complexities to what we face: one law, one issue, one march, one leader, one group will never solve our problems. Certainly those of us who are well-fed and overeducated must keep marching forward even as the tidal waves of retrenchment keep crashing in. Yet, all of us must find the courage that MLK and so many others did to say, "No more." We must find our own gift, our own sphere of influence and do whatever we can to give voice to those who have none, to agitate, to inspire, to educate, to support, and to work until each piece of this multi-faceted monster of inequality is rendered powerless. As John Lewis reminded MLK of his own words, "We've come too far to turn back now."

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