Lessons From Black History: To Make Change, We Must Raise Our Voices

As part of the Roosevelt Institute's weeklong "Lessons from Black History" series, running on the New Deal 2.0 blog from Feb. 15-19, I was asked to reflect on what lessons from the past should be heeded to advance social justice in the future. Here's my take.

There have been a few reminders lately that there are some advantages to being on the outside fighting the good fight, rather than being on the inside having won.

Fifty-five years on, we cannot lose sight of the sense of rebellion embodied in a single person's choice of where to sit. Sitting in one seat, instead of another ten feet away, meant confronting a blind, irrational, rage that put Rosa Parks' life at risk in 1955. Her refusal to sit where she was expected to laid bare the lunacy and instability of a society so strictly ordered along racial lines. Her simple act of defiance shook the foundations of that society and quickened its demise. A simple personal decision became a revolutionary act of historic proportions.

In the time since, we're grown used to a more comfortable life in the United States. African Americans are now tightly woven into the fabric of the nation. Even in Montgomery, even in Cicero, we've achieved the means, at least politically, to address our concerns from within the system -- often, it seems, preferring negotiation to activism.

Since January 20, 2009, we've seen the limits of that strategy. President Obama, who rode to victory in 2008 on an unparalleled wave of voter activism, saw that wave crest and dissipate. He was left to fight alone on issues that are nearly as baneful today as segregation was in our parents' time: climate change, and an unfair economy leaving millions without work and their children hungry and without medical care.

Could it be that President Obama's supporters drew the wrong conclusions from his victory? Did they assume that with him in office these problems would be quickly addressed without strife, without a voice raised?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned us: "Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals."

We must be those dedicated individuals. We must take bold action, and call out the hypocrisies of those who oppose righteous change. As we advocate for green jobs and other progressive causes, we must be willing to take an action that is uncomfortable to us and to others. We must responsibly call attention to injustice whenever and wherever we find it. We can't be frightened by the words or actions of those fighting for their own interests and the status quo.

Justice isn't won with broad strokes or grand gestures. It comes incrementally, by the tiny ripples of hope of which Robert Kennedy spoke -- small actions that any of us can take in the daily fight for justice.

The tiny ripples and simple acts of our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles created a society much better than the one they inherited. It is incumbent on us to do the same -- no matter how challenging or uncomfortable the task may be.

This post originally appeared on New Deal 2.0.