Capitol Thoughts
Capitol Thoughts Archive

NAN Washington, DC Bureau News: In the Footsteps of a Solider

Jun 28, 2011

I recently saw the movie “Barber of Birmingham” about one of the foot soldiers of the Civil RightsMovement, James Armstrong, and the realization of his dream of one day seeing a black man becomePresident of the United States. James fought Bull Connor’s attack dogs for basic civil rights, includingthe right to vote. He fought for education, suing the Birmingham Board of Education to desegregate thepublic schools and won; his two young sons, David and Floyd, were the first to integrate the Birminghamschools in 1963. In one of the first lines of the movie, he says of his work during the Civil Rightsera, “the worst thing you can do is nothing.” That line rang out in my head and made think back to myvery first experience of “doing something” when I was 13 years old and how it has shaped me since.

After spending years in Camden City schools, my parents decided to send me to a Catholic high school.It was a new experience and it was one of the first times in my young adult life that I really felt likeI was in the minority. During my freshman year, I learned that the school had turned Black HistoryMonth into “Multi-cultural Awareness Month,” dedicating one week each to African Americans, HispanicAmericans, Asian Americans and Native Americans. I was beside myself. It made absolutely no sense tome – African American historical contributions were absent from many school books and I was lookingforward to having that month to share with my classmates of other races how important my ancestorswere to building this great nation. After speaking with the Dean of the school, I understood what theadministrators were trying to do – they were trying to be inclusive and show the contributions thatso many people of all different colors had made to our nation. And yet, I realized even then, that theattempts at inclusion were at the expense of blacks. No class time was being dedicated to teachinglessons focused on filling in the gaps of the history books we learned from; the month was celebratedwith hallway displays, facts and stories told during the announcements and special lunches reflectingthe specific culture in the cafeteria. Instead of dedicating one month to each individual ethnic group,which would have been fair, the school decided to take away what little recognition blacks had and Icouldn’t fathom allowing that to happen.

I made it my personal business to make sure that every black person in the school was aware of theissue. I talked to people waiting for the morning bus, during lunch, after school and even passed somenotes during class. My conscience would not and could not stand for this injustice. My dad had toldme stories about the walk-outs that he initiated in high school during the 60’s and 70’s and so I decidedthat instead of just complaining about it, I would lead a walk-out during the morning announcementsand everyone would head to the Dean’s office to issue our joint complaint. Again, I held conferencewith every black person I knew. While I intended and even naively thought that every black personwould want to “fight the power”, most of the upperclassmen were uninterested; they had been throughyears of having “Multi-cultural Awareness Month” and accepted it, even if they didn’t like it. So I hadmy freshman peers and a few sophomores; many of us agreed that what was needed was action. Theplan was set and even if we didn’t get the change we hoped for on the first try, at least we would havefought for what we believed in.

The day of the walk-out came and just before the homeroom bell, I made sure to remind everyone whatthe plan was. We all reported to homeroom and knew exactly what time we were supposed to get upand leave. When the time came, I rose to my feet and as I looked around the room at my two blackclassmates, they sat still, almost as if they had no idea what was happening. I silently urged them to join me, but they never budged. As I walked the hall to the Dean’s office, I noticed I walked alone; the planto come together had fallen apart, but that didn’t stop me from pursuing my goal of making sure theDean knew that what the school was doing was unacceptable. Though I walked and spoke to the Deanalone, I walked and spoke for more than just myself. I thought about my classmates who weren’t withme, I thought about the black students who would attend the school after me, and I thought about allof the students of every other race and color who were missing out on the stories of African Americancontributions to US history. By the time I got to lunch, my friends from my homeroom had shared thestory with my other peers who were all in shock that I had actually gone through with it. When I askedwhy they didn’t walk-out, they all admitted to being afraid – scared of what their parents might say,scared of what the repercussions might be, even scared that they would be alone.

That experience taught me a very valuable lesson about fighting for what you believe in – it showed methat to be a fighter and to be a leader for change, you have to believe that what you are fighting for isgreater than whatever consequences will come in the fight. You might not always have the support ofthose you expect to be there, but the hope for something greater will always carry you through. JamesArmstrong and the foot soldiers knew that and they fought for voter’s rights, and education, and equalstatus through beatings, jail sentences and job loss. Even David and Floyd, just young boys at the time,had to endure people yelling at them and calling them derogatory names, walking to school with armedguards and even people spitting at them. They all believed that what they wanted was greater thanwhat they were experiencing and so they fought despite the consequences.

My fight for equity was very different than the fight that James Armstrong’s two sons had to endure.And though my fight was different, it still needed to be fought. Over the years, we’ve seen progressin this country and we’ve seen the fights change, but the thing that remains is there are still manyissues that need foot soldiers – people to stand and walk for what is good, right, and fair. The fightsmay be different, but are equally as important. My inner-fighter is what led me to the National ActionNetwork – to become a voice for those who don’t feel that their voices are heard and to fight for socialjustice and equality. As DC Bureau Chief I will have my ear to the ground to make sure that the public isaware of proposed legislation and policies that will impact minorities and low-income populations. Mygoal is to continue to build on the legacy that Rev. Al Sharpton, Founder of National Action Network,created and that NAN Executive Director, Tamika Mallory, has expanded. Even though I might walk intomeetings or speak on issues alone, I am never only speaking for myself, but always with justice for all inmind. I hope that as you read this, you are inspired to fight in your school, neighborhood, or state. You can join me and the rest of the National Action Network team as we fight for jobs and justice on August27th in Washington, DC. There’s no better time than now to join the action.