Last week, I wrote a blog post that connected two different experiences I have had this month. The first was a Congressional MLK pilgrimage through Selma Alabama and Memphis. The other was watching my children participate in the National School Walk Out on March 14. The uprising of young people today following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting was a very significant part of the discussions taking place on the congressional pilgrimage. It felt natural for me to unpack the correlation between the two events.
However, after reading a piece in the Washington Post this morning by our friend Mike McBride, I’ve been challenged afresh to look at my own biases as I engage issues of justice in the world. The most important lesson I’ve learned over the last three years is to listen, and to go deeper in seeking to understand issues through the lens of those who might see from a very different perspective. The second thing I have learned is that I must be willing to acknowledge where I have missed something. I believe this is one of those situations.
In our desire to bring genuine change, it is easy for any person with any kind of privilege, influence, or power, to seek to be “the savior”. I believe that, for the most part, most of us don’t do this intentionally. Yet, we do possess an innate desire to come in and fix things, to be the ones who bring the answers. I know I do.
But what if our responsibility is to sit back and give our platform to someone else? What if our responsibility is to look a little wider or deeper?
My original post began here – On Sunday, March 4, on the 53rd anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”, I had the incredible honor of walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, alongside civil rights hero Congressman John Lewis. On Wednesday, March 14, just ten days later, I watched my middle school daughters walk out of their school for 17 minutes as part of the #NationalSchoolWalkout honoring the 17 lives lost in the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. I watched them join their voices in solidarity with students across the country calling for tougher gun legislation in the United States.
And while my girls demonstrated without fear of attack or retribution, I could see that there were parallels in the two narratives.
On March 7, 1965, John Lewis was among the leaders in a movement of non-violent activists marching in Alabama for the right to vote. After being greeted on the other side of the Edmund Pettus bridge by Alabama State troopers armed with nightsticks and tear gas, John and fifty-eight others were treated for brutal injuries at the local hospital. Alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Lewis and many others were willing to risk their lives to stand up for what they believed was right: humanity, dignity, and equality for all. John Lewis was 24 years old when he crossed that bridge in Selma.
Throughout the 3 day pilgrimage in Alabama honoring the life and legacy of Dr. King, we felt the juxtaposition of history alongside current realities in the wake of the student-led response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. While we listened to the words of Dr. King, students in Parkland and around the country, were rising up just like he did to say “Enough!”
The students of Parkland and those standing with them are saying “We need more than your thoughts and prayers. We need your action”.
And the nation seems to be paying attention. And it is here that I reimagine the rest of my piece.
The story of Congressman Lewis, Dr. King, and others like them, was not celebrated or supported at the time. It was actively opposed. A large portion of the population sought to muzzle their voices. They were the marginalized and the oppressed seeking freedom and basic civil rights.
Rev. Mike McBride in his Washington Post piece, states:
“The courage and the strength of the Parkland students are inspiring. Amid their personal pain, they have articulated a sense of rage, conviction and moral clarity over the lack of action on gun violence…While the heroism of these students is without question, we shouldn’t forget that the Parkland activists are part of a broader choir of youths — from Columbine to Ferguson to Baltimore — who have harmonized their voices to plead for an end to gun violence in all its forms.
Unfortunately, many of us have difficulty hearing each voice equally. The ears of our nation have still not been trained to hear the prophetic voices of poor youths of color.”
I realized that, as I was drawing the parallels between the freedom marchers of the sixties with the rising up of my own children and others across the nation, I was also at risk of hijacking a narrative in order to serve my own purposes. Don’t get me wrong, I do think it is right that we learn from and embrace the stories of legends who have gone before us. After all, we do stand on their shoulders. But I’m wrestling with this question: “How do we advocate in a way that does not continue to ignore the voices of those who are still marginalized today?”
How do we ensure that the voices that need to be heard, are being heard?
I liken this to the men who in the recent #metoo movement have spoken out because they, too, have sisters, wives, and daughters – the criticism they have faced when making such statements are that they have only engaged this crucial issue because it became personal. (Again, the criticism is not against them speaking up, but it is bringing a greater call to engage beyond that which only affects us personally).
Are we now just throwing our support behind these young voices against gun control because we too have students in schools who may also fall victim to a shooter entering and firing mercilessly? What about the young people who have been speaking out against the gun violence that has been terrorizing their communities for years? Why do we only get involved when it directly impacts us?
So, my own challenge, as I throw my support behind the students rising up around the country, is to also listen to the voices of the young people of color, who are also leading the way, and who have been doing so for a lot longer. The harsh reality is that their livelihood does literally depend upon it.
Would you join me at 6pm EST tonight in watching the national town hall being led by The National Black & Brown Gun Violence Prevention Consortium ahead of the March for Our Lives in Washington this weekend? (You can find more information on the event facebook here) Would you listen and learn and with me? I believe we will all be better for it in the end.