Working on the Unfinished Business

As program coordinator of the University of Louisville Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research, where we seek to advance public understanding of the U.S. civil rights movement, both its powerful history and its unfinished agenda of racial and social justice, I am encouraged to always look at past and present simultaneously, to not so much celebrate the accomplishments of the civil rights era, but to recognize them, learn from the strategies that brought about significant changes in law, and understand how those laws have or haven't changed lives for African Americans and other people of color in the U.S.

With 2013 being the 50th anniversary year of so many pivotal Summer of '63 events, history has been in my face even more often than usual over the past few months. Organizers of an on-campus commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom asked the Institute's director and staff to record a statement about the event to go with an exhibit in the library. As we spoke our statements, we held up signs that read, "Black Lives Matter," the meme we began to see after George Zimmerman was acquitted.

The Monday after the George Zimmerman verdict was a dismal day in the Anne Braden Institute. An unarmed black child's life had been snatched from him by a man who presumed he was dangerous allegedly just because he was black, presumed he didn't belong in that neighborhood allegedly just because he was black, and that child's killer was found not guilty after the defense painted the child as a thug, a stereotypical young black male who would be a criminal and a burden to the entire nation. That this could happen 50 years after the March on Washington, 50 years after Medgar Evers was assassinated in his driveway, 50 years after four little girls were killed when Klansmen bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, 50 years after W.E.B. DuBois -- who wrote a hundred years ago, "How does it feel to be a problem? To have your very body and the bodies of your children to be assumed to be criminal, violent, malignant?" -- died, made it worse. On one hand, there's been monumental change in law, but on the other hand, we have made so little progress with regard to racism in this country.

As I read the text of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in preparation for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I saw that in my lifetime, the speech, the march, that moment and almost the entire movement has been sanitized down to the line, "judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." King's outcry for freedom has been turned into diversity initiatives and proud declarations of colorblindness.

King said,

Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

We're still in that "until" period. As a 1980s baby, I haven't experienced the overt discrimination, abject humiliation or unconscionable brutality of Jim Crow. I've reaped the benefits of others' endurance, resistance and determination, but I've still been left with the civil rights movement's unfinished business. Mass incarceration, the school to prison pipeline, poverty, high unemployment in black communities, immigration, environmental racism, the Supreme Court dismantling the Voting Rights Act, Trayvon Martin's death, the presumed pathology and disposability of black and brown people -- 50 years since King said it, "the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land." And this country still must change.

Mariam Williams (@missmariamw) is program coordinator at the University of Louisville Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research (@ABIatUofL). She blogs independently of the Institute at Visit the Institute at