Somebody’s Little Girl. Photo by Thomas Hawk.

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The Movement Still Matters

A lot has changed since I grew up in Louisiana. I was born in 1959, on the eve of one of the most turbulent decades in American history.

Yes, a lot has changed. But it’s not as different as you might think.

We, the children of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, boycotted for civil rights, protested for peace, marched for justice. We were the radicals and the rabble-rousers. Rowdy defenders of democracy, we were soldiers in the vanguard of free speech.

We were young and we made noise. We made noise until we were listened to. We marched in step for a new era; we marched so a new generation could help move America forward. We marched so others could simply soar.

Those were not glory days. There was nothing glorious about Jim Crow, segregation, or the assassination of our leaders and those who inspired us.

What we did, others can do. In fact, they must.

Agitation for change is the burden—the responsibility—of youth. Each generation has a “mountaintop moment,” a moment when it must decide if it will make the difficult climb up the mountain, with the hazards and risks that are part of the climb, or it will sit idle in the foothills, without courage or movement.

For America’s youth—especially those who reside in my beloved Louisiana and other places down yonder—this is your mountaintop moment!

I believe firmly in responsibility. Individual responsibility and social responsibility. What we have, we must use for the good of others. What do you have? Youth, energy, vigor. They are not yours for self-indulgence. They are a gift—a gift you will not have forever—given to you to continue our fight, to fight for your future, to fight for the generations that will follow you.

The rest of us—we may be getting older, we may be slowing down, but we’re not giving up. We’re not resting on our laurels, and we’re not going to retire. We are here to fight, to advise, to educate, to encourage, to guide.

But the task of transforming the world, of increasing goodness and kindness, of pursuing justice and pursuing opportunity for all—justice, justice, shalt thou pursue—you are the ones with the energy, the new ideas, the unsullied optimism. Young people must never give up on “We the People.” Because you matter. And the movement remains an instrument that must become a mechanism to inspire you toward a more perfect union.

So what’s at stake? What’s left to change or modify or even dismantle?

My generation, the baby boomers, can rightfully say we worked our butts off. We have done much. But what we have done is under threat and assault, and there is so much more to accomplish.

We secured the Right to Vote.

We opened doors to higher education and began the process of providing early childhood education to the poor, to minorities, to the economically and socially deprived, knowing that was the only way to level the employment and social playing field.

We have sent Blacks to Congress and changed, to a certain extent, the atmosphere of corporate America. Blacks and women and minorities who are CEOs, who hold positions of importance in industry, the professions, academics—these are no longer oddities. Black and minority and women entrepreneurs are innovators, forces to be reckoned with.

We have a biracial president of the United States, elected twice with more than 50 percent of the vote.

There are three women on the Supreme Court.

We have achieved what every president since Harry Truman tried to achieve—health care reform.

By every measure, Obamacare has exceeded expectations. It is reducing the cost of medical care, it is providing coverage to millions of previously uninsured, it guarantees that no American can be denied care for a pre-existing condition.

These are significant accomplishments. But there’s more, much more, that we wanted for you.

A quality public education guaranteed for every child, regardless of income or zip code.

Safe neighborhoods and parks where kids can play without fear.

A job for every person who wants to work, one that pays well and respects human dignity.

A healthy economy that allows everyone to contribute to it and benefit from it.

A social safety net that allows no one to fall through the cracks.

Peace at home and around the globe.

That’s what we wanted for you. That’s the legacy we wanted to leave. That’s the future we want to see.

Now it’s up to you.

It’s no longer up to us alone. It can’t be. Not anymore. We did our part in making the world a little better. Now it’s your turn.

So, again, let me issue a challenge: Pay your dues. Someone before you paid his or her dues in blood. You can afford to serve, to run for office, to help those in office or simply volunteer in your community.

The movement still has work to do: to end injustice, to improve race relations, to help rebuild our nation’s economy, and to expand opportunity for all.

We cannot do it alone. You have an investment in it.

And above all, don’t lose hope. Don’t give up. Fight on.

Sometimes, historical moments announce themselves. Pearl Harbor. The first atomic bomb. Rosa Parks. Brown vs. Board of Education. The March on Washington. The assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK. Man walks on the moon. Watergate. September 11.

Sometimes we know about them in advance, as when the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were signed.

Sometimes we recognize their significance only after the fact, from the effects and fallout, because sometimes those critical moments are quiet, unappreciated.

Growing up in the South gave me a deep appreciation for the sacrifice and courage of ordinary people. They made the difference in my life and the lives of others.

As I learned growing up, progressive change never comes from an entrenched elite. It took boots marching on the ground to change America in the past, and it will take boots on the ground to change America in the present.

Every semester when I finish teaching a class at Georgetown, I give my students a speech with a the same message. The Movement still matters and the Movement needs you now:

“Why you? Why now?

“Why you? Because there is no one better. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.) once said, ‘Service is the rent we pay for living on this planet.’ So, pay your rent. It’s your chance to lead.

“Why now? We need to hurry history. Tomorrow is not soon enough.

“You deserve a seat at the table, and if there isn’t a seat there for you, pull up a folding chair. We owe it to those that got us to this point on our long journey toward equality.

“My career began early because I was inspired by women like Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Shirley Chisholm, and many more. Men like Martin Luther King Jr., who marched and was arrested and was threatened daily so we could pull the lever in the voting booth.

“So, use your power to hurry history. I will believe in you.

“Now . . .

“Believe in yourselves.”