History can move in two directions at once

Benjamin Todd Jealous | 9/16/2013, 10:55 a.m.

(NAACP) – In my time as an organizer, I have been guided by the words of many people – activists and authors, colleagues and friends. But the most powerful lesson I ever received about the struggle for civil and human rights came in 1993, when my grandmother taught me that history could move in two directions at once.

I was in college, celebrating a friend’s 21st birthday. A round of toasts went up. One friend raised his glass to honor the memory of all those we knew who had been killed or sent to prison before they reached the age of 21. Another friend lifted his cup to toast to the fact that one more of us had lived long enough to reach the quintessential age of adulthood.

I could not raise my glass on that last toast. In fact, it felt as if the notion cut me like a knife.

The notion that a man of any race, of any age, in the world’s greatest and wealthiest democracy, could think it an accomplishment to simply breathe past the age of 21 – it cut me to the core.

After so many historic civil rights victories, how could it be that my generation had grown up just in time to find itself the most murdered generation in the country and the most incarcerated generation on the planet?

So I did what I always did when I am stuck. I went to my grandmother’s table and I laid my burdens down.

I said, “Grandma, you told me that my generation was supposed to be the first generation to be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character. Not because of what we are or where we come from – but because of who we are and where we are headed. What happened?”

My grandma got real quiet. She looked at me with sad eyes and then she said, “Son, it’s sad but it’s simple. We got what we fought for, but we lost what we had.”

Those are wise words to remember in times like this.

We got the right to be police officers, but we lost the right to live in safe communities. In Chicago, a culture of poverty-fueled gang violence has reinforced the notion that living until 21 is an accomplishment.

We got the right to send our children to any school, but we lost the right to assume that they would receive a good education at whatever school they attend. In Philadelphia, the school system is facing a $300 million budget gap that already delayed the start of the school year and threatens to devastate support staff at schools in the most underserved communities.

We got the right to live in any community, but we lost the right to know that our children would be protected by the police – or the community watch volunteers – who are supposed to serve them. In 2011, before New York City passed a racial profiling ban with teeth, the New York Police Department made more stops of young Black men between the ages of 14 and 24 than there were young Black men between 14 and 24 in the city.