“…it was the unwavering focus and commitment to actions in our present that I found most compelling, and have been unable to shake.”
A reflection by YLI CEO, Jon Marker, on the Equal Justice Initiative Museum & Memorial Opening in Montgomery, Alabama.
This past month, I found myself in Montgomery, Alabama at a celebration hosted by the Equal Justice Initiative, a team of lawyers, led by Bryan Stevenson, working to end Mass Incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States. I was one of thousands who came to the opening of the National Memorial For Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum. Over the course of the week there were seminars, teach-ins, concerts. It was an opportunity to sit in pain and truth, hope and love. The Memorial and Museum masterfully created physical spaces to learn about our country’s legacy of racial terror and its connection to our present, to face the truth of this country’s history, and to begin healing as individuals and a collective society.
The truth is that slavery never ended, but has evolved into the current system of Mass Incarceration. What it would mean for our nation to reconcile our history of white supremacy and terror, focused predominantly on black bodies through lynching and other racialized terror? During the two days I spent in Montgomery, I learned from legends of the mid 20th century Civil Rights movements and discussed the power of those who came before us with the Civil Rights leaders of today. But, it was the unwavering focus and commitment to actions in our present that I found most compelling, and have been unable to shake.
Over the past few years I have found myself in countless conversations about how people no longer recognize our country, how the country is “the worst it has ever been,” or how there is just too much going on. I know that these sentiments are well-intentioned. Yet, I can’t help but notice that they are most often voiced by those in positions of relative privilege: the privilege, for example, of being surprised by recent electoral politics that have brought to the mainstream the hateful undergirding of racial bigotry. Others have lived and/or been proximate to the harsh consequences of our country’s dominant culture of white supremacy all along. These comments feel like an acceptance of despair, defined by Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, as “the belief that tomorrow will be just like today.”
Every day I have the privilege to work with young people across California who cannot afford despair. Who, when they don’t see a future for themselves in mainstream society, rely on their brilliance and creativity, on the work their communities have been quietly doing for generations, to design a better vision for themselves and their peers.
Marion Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, demanded of those who had gathered to “Get off [her] shoulders and go out and build the next path.” Rev Dr. William Barber echoed:
“This is not the worst we have ever seen, it’s just our time.
Others have stood before but they are dead and gone.
I declare unto you, Harriet Tubman is not getting out of the grave,
I declare unto you, William Lloyd Garrison is not getting out of the grave,
I declare unto you, A Phillip Randolph is not getting out of the grave,
I declare unto you, that Rabbi Heschel, and Dorothy Day are not getting out of the grave,
I visited the crypt at Martin Luther King, called his name, and he didn’t get out of the grave
They may not get out of their grave, but we are their children! And we will never ever ever ever turn back on this democracy, and we will never never never never allow lynching to choke the life out of this democracy- it’s time for a movement for life!”
Our young people are responding to these calls. The Youth Leadership Institute is striving to be partners and allies in this youth-led work, along with grassroots organizations in California’s Central Valley and San Francisco Bay Area.
It is only with humility and hopefulness that one could merge the harsh realities of our culture with the hope to do better. This hope and joy was enshrined in the entertainment each night: Patty LuPoine, The Roots, Stevie Wonder, Kirk Franklin, Common all joined to share the artistry of the movement. John Lewis reflected that without the arts, the Civil Rights Movement was a bird without wings. As the teach-ins and seminars ended, we were called together to sing the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing, to celebrate that we are picking up where our ancestors left off and that we have an obligation to carry on for those who will call us their ancestors some day.
The call is clear. So many have done more with less, and we can’t wait for anyone else to lead. As the Youth Leadership Institute enters our 28th year, we are standing side-by-side with our 1700 youth; supporting them to be the truth tellers of their ancestors, of their lived experience, of their community’s past and present reality, and to design their own initiatives for community change this summer. I encourage everyone to reflect: what are YOU doing today to demonstrate that it is (y)our time? When did you decide to stop waiting? Where are you taking action?
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