(RNS) Any reflection on the March on Washington and the civil rights movement makes it clear that everything has changed. Yet the sad reality is that many things have not changed.
During the ’50s and ’60s, the issues were obvious. Blacks were considered unequal, and public policy reflected that fact. Public policy supported segregation and discrimination. Our community was plagued by high unemployment and poverty, lack of access to quality education and we were denied the right to vote. Today, we have more black police officers than ever and yet racial profiling remains a serious problem. Everything has changed and nothing has changed.
We have more black elected officials than ever, including the nation’s highest elected official. Yet many states are passing legislation designed to restrict, if not eliminate, our right to vote. Everything has changed and nothing has changed.
Beginning with the Montgomery bus boycott, a new era was born in the struggle. Self-determination became the order of the day. The bus boycott painted a clear picture that no matter what the courts said or didn’t say, we were through with the back of the bus.
We engaged in non-violent civil disobedience to compel a change in public policy. We endured unspeakable violence and duress, but we were determined that “we ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around,” and we didn’t. We endured beatings, tear gas, attack dogs, arrests and water hoses. Innocent people were killed in the struggle. Despite fierce resistance, we persevered.
Looking back over five decades, the evidence is clear that everything has changed. We elected black mayors in the South and fought to end apartheid in South Africa. Nelson Mandela walked out of prison after 27 years and became president of South Africa. Segregation was outlawed and black people began to enjoy better lives.
But new challenges, including HIV/AIDS, drugs and gun violence, undermine our progress. We’ve come a long, long way, but we still have a long, long way to go. For too many young people, the “movement” is distant history. But we see a new birth of energy around the criminal justice system and voting rights. We take great pride in the fact that black youth overwhelmingly helped elect the first black president. We have come to the end of our tolerance of the killing and demonization of young black men — it is the most pernicious holdover from an ugly past.
The prison industrial complex is the new Jim Crow, and voter ID laws are a new form of poll tax. But we see a new birth of movement … we’ve marched too long, prayed too hard, wept too bitterly, bled too profusely and died too young to let anybody turn back the clock on our journey to justice. We believe the nation is growing tired of the continued persecution of minorities, tired of nagging poverty and tired of political viciousness.
The other day our doctor explained to us that there are two forms of cholesterol: good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. We think there are two forms of crazy: good crazy and bad crazy.
It was good crazy that enabled Harriet Tubman to defy tyrants of slavery and lead many people to freedom. And it is good crazy that is leading us now to a new era of marching, a new level of voter participation, wiser use of our economic resources and a new spirit that enables us to strengthen family life and usher in a new day.
(The Rev. Joseph Lowery, 91, a Methodist minister and Evelyn Lowery, 86, have been married more than 60 years. He served as the national president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for more than 20 years. She has headed SCLC W.O.M.E.N. Inc., for more than 30 years.)