7. March 2013 14:52
by Tammi Sharpe
It is one of those times when I get to say “I was there” at the Commemoration of Bloody Sunday. What was the value of this day? Are we unconstructively dredging up racist history as queried in an al.com article*? I’d say no.
For me it was an opportunity to reflect on the Civil Rights Movement: an extraordinary time in American history when masses, hundreds of thousands of people came together to non-violently demonstrate for their rights and their resolve stayed firm for a decade. Imagine a decade of continuous protesting. And, as Vice President Biden stated, those demonstrators had “courage.” This is not an inflated compliment. We, all Americans—African-American, White, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, Arab-American—should reflect on the violent resistance these protesters faced down in order to obtain one of the most fundamental right of a democracy, the right to vote. Their battle for this right alongside other basic civil and human rights—security, protection of the law, freedom of expression, freedom of movement--and simple basic human dignity—to enter through the front of the bus, to use a public bathroom, to share a public water fountain with other citizens—was democracy in action.
In 1958 Reverend Shuttlesworth stated “Democracy is on trial.” This was in the early years of the Civil Rights Movement but the trial had started way before the 1950s. The trial began with the founding of this country when only white male property owners had the right to vote. This trial was on-going during the U.S. Civil War when some 4 million people, the majority of which had been born in the U.S., were enslaved. This trial could be seen during World War II when the U.S. fought against the idea of an Aryan supreme race while white supremacy flourished throughout the U.S. This trial continues today. As Attorney General Holder stated “progress has indeed been made… [but] let us challenge each other to aim higher.” Herein lies the importance of recalling this history. We remain citizens in a democracy and as such we need to be aware of our rights and we need to remain vigilant on ensuring these rights are upheld. This is our civic duty.
Democratic structures are in place, but as witnessed in the past and today these structures by themselves do not uphold our rights. We must engage. All the speakers took note of the on-going Supreme Court’s review of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Throughout the afternoon protestors repeated the chant “Section 5 must stay alive.” The Senior Counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Debo Agegbile, who argued against the constitutional challenge to the VRA before the Supreme Court, strongly argued that “the right to vote cannot be abridged.” Al Sharpton remarked that today is “not a commemoration. This is a continuation.”
Thus, I go back to the question of the al.com article about “dredging up” a racist past and one that I have heard before. I do believe it is necessary. It is too easy to see and only understand what directly affects us. One can see this in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Not all whites were white supremacist. Some joined the struggle, but many stood on the sidelines and in doing so they empowered the white supremacists. Remembering the Civil Rights Movement should remind us of our civic responsibilities of knowing our rights, and speaking out for our rights as well as those of all Americans. If more of our ancestors had truly reflected and acted on the injustices of segregation and slavery, maybe it would not have taken us centuries to correct these wrongs. Lets not go backwards.