Capitol Thoughts
Capitol Thoughts Archive

Progress, One Step at a Time by Janaye Ingram

May 01, 2012

A few weeks ago, I was speaking on a panel at Howard University about how blacks self-define in the 21st century and whether we believe we live in a post-racial society. The discussion was hearty and took a few turns down different paths. At one point, we were discussing moments versus movements and how young people looked at the movement now juxtaposed to the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. I remember that one person said they didn’t see us making any progress and that we often let moments pass us by without turning them into movements. Another person said that a movement that might appeal to someone in New York would be different than what might interest someone from Detroit, further stating that we don’t face the same blanket issues throughout the nation as there were during the civil rights movement. A few days later as I was talking with Rev. Sharpton about the discussion we had during the event and some of the other interesting points that came up, we started talking about the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s and how there is a misconception that many more people were involved in than actually were. Then, he framed the expectation that progress should happen quickly when he pointed out that the civil rights movement of that era took nine years for the legislation to be signed if you chose the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott as the starting point for the civil rights movement.

Between that conversation and now, something happened. During National Action Network’s convention in Washington, DC, we were able to see progress in the movement to obtain justice for Trayvon Martin and his family. It took over 40 days for an arrest to be made, and at times, no one was sure it would come, but people pressed on, one foot in front of the other. We continued to hold rallies, even as the police chief said an arrest would NOT be made. We continued to have conversations in small groups and large forums, from classrooms to boardrooms, Trayvon was not to be forgotten and we continued to seek justice even in the face of staunch opposition and outright denial. We clung to that thing that is talked about in the Bible and in Presidential slogans – we had hope. We hoped that our cries would not fall on deaf ears, we hoped for the outcome to change. We hoped that our combined effort would result in us making a difference. But it wasn’t hope alone that we used in our movement. Our hope allowed us to press on in action. Without the action, the results might be completely different. But with action, George Zimmerman was not only arrested, but charged with second degree murder. Yes, it took 45 days for us to achieve that small step towards justice, but maybe to the family of Trayvon Martin, it was worth it. And the movement that started with Trayvon’s death continues to this very moment. It’s what has made it larger than a moment and truly catapulted it into a movement that is ongoing.

Shortly after the Zimmerman arrest, two things happened. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) disbanded their taskforce that helped create the “Stand Your Ground” laws and the voter suppression legislation that has been sweeping the country. ALEC’s sins are many and major damage has largely been done. But this is undoubtedly a step forward. I’m not the best of chess players, but I do know that when you are playing chess, if your opponent sees a clear path to victory and you make a move that causes them to have to reassess their strategy, you’ve made a good move. Whether ALEC will truly cease and desist with any of their non-economic work remains to be seen and while we still have a lot of work to do to safeguard our communities against organizations like ALEC, we should never discount that it was progress made. The second thing that happened was that the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on The Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights held its first hearing on racial profiling since 2001. With racial profiling back on the national stage and legislation to prevent law enforcement from using racial profiling in their work introduced in both chambers of Congress, I can’t help but identify this as a step in the right direction. Time will tell if the bills will pass, but this is an issue that National Action Network and so many other organizations and individuals have worked on for years. To have a spotlight on this again is a signal that our fighting is not in vain.

This past week, I had the opportunity to speak at a rally in front of the Supreme Court as they heard arguments about immigration in Arizona vs. United States. There are some people who don’t understand why I would be speaking on this issue. I think back to the earlier comments by the students at Howard that there aren’t any issues that many different groups can mobilize around and I’m immediately reminded of Dr. King’s infamous quote, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” What we all must realize is that in order to truly pursue justice, you can’t just pursue it for yourself and stand idly by when injustice is affecting others. In a historical context, segregation did not affect all black people. There were plenty of black people in northern states who did not have to use separate facilities and who went to integrated schools at the same time that southern blacks were forced to live in a “separate but equal” farce. Despite the misconception that there aren’t any unifying issues and the earlier statement during the panel discussion that blacks in New York will mobilize around something different than blacks in Detroit, there are plenty of issues that affect us all. And as we continue to think of ways to further separate ourselves from each other, we are facing assaults on our voting rights; worker’s rights are being attacked and states are making racial profiling against Latinos legal in laws like Arizona’s SB 1070 and Alabama’s HB 56. Those injustices are intertwined and we can’t miss any opportunity to pursue justice without sacrificing the greater and common good.

In our microwave, “I want it now”, immediate gratification society, it’s understandable why people don’t think we are making progress. It takes more time than people are used to in order to make social justice gains. But, progress is a journey, not a destination. When we marched from Selma to Montgomery, AL last month, I never thought to myself, “When I reach Montgomery, justice will be waiting.” And yet, I took every step realizing that they were steps toward something greater. It would be more than utopian to believe that the world will one day be fair and just for everyone. In reality, progress is not a place that we will arrive, but a continuous goal that we should have. We can all be better today than we were yesterday and even greater tomorrow than we are right now. But it requires that we have a vision and goal in mind. There will always be battles to fight and movements around which to galvanize and organize. But if we don’t keep the goal in sight, it becomes very easy to lose faith that progress is being made. Sometimes it does seem larger than life, sometimes it does seem too much to overcome and sometimes we do take one step forward and two steps back. But if we don’t keep taking those individual steps forward, we simply end up moving backward. A friend asked me the other day, what’s the best way to eat an elephant. My response was, “one bite at a time”. We are taking on a mammoth principle and we have to achieve it in pieces, not all at once. We can’t imagine that we will win all of our battles in one year, in four years, or even 10. We should realize that we have to take our small wins and use them as fuel to get through our next battle. Progress comes one day, one step, one moment at a time. It’s not about how long it takes to achieve your goals, rather that you achieve them at all.