This year, Americans of conscience celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2, 1964, after a Senate filibuster that lasted 54 days. To mark that historic event, President Obama delivered a critically important address at a Civil Rights Summit held on April 10 at the Johnson Presidential Library.
His remarks acknowledged the political genius that allowed President Lyndon Johnson to fashion a legacy unequaled by any other leader since the Roosevelt era – a record of social progress that included not only the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but also the Voting Rights Act, Fair Housing Act, Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, Work-Study, food stamps, advances in women's rights, landmark gun control legislation, and immigration reform.
Then, President Obama challenged us to pick up the baton handed to us by inspired leaders of the civil rights era and the "… countless unheralded Americans … whose names are etched not on monuments but in the hearts of their loved ones and in the fabric of the country that they helped to change."
It is their example, every bit as much as that of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President John F. Kennedy, senator and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and President Lyndon Johnson, from which we must draw strength today – for we are the civil rights movement of this century.
There are those among us – thoughtful and brilliant thinkers like Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation and Washington Post – who respond to the reactionary elements and injustice of our time with a troubling, but fair, question: "Will America once more turn its back on civil rights?"
"The lesson of Reconstruction is clear," vanden Heuvel observed in her April 1 column in the Post. "Progress toward greater justice is not inevitable. Equal justice under law will not be inherited. Each generation must fight to extend it or risk watching it erode."
I would have to agree. The threats that now confront us, both in Washington and in many state capitals, prevent our concluding otherwise.
As President Obama observed in his Austin, Texas, remarks, "… We know that we cannot be complacent. Securing the gains that this country has made requires the vigilance of its citizens. Our rights and freedoms are not given. They must be won. They must be nurtured through struggle and discipline and persistence and faith."
The forces that would take America back to a less progressive time must still be confronted and overcome. Yet, as President Obama has eloquently observed, "With enough effort and enough empathy and enough perseverance and enough courage, people who love their country can change it."
These insights have been dramatically illustrated by our own experience in recent years. In 2008 and 2012, a coalition of progressive Americans – Black and White, brown and yellow, women and men, straight and gay, young and young at heart – came together to elect a brilliant Black man President of the United States.
We succeeded because our strategy, tactics and goals were not those of standard political campaigns. Rather, our victories in these presidential elections were steps forward in an ongoing movement to create an America that will more accurately reflect our national creed of liberty, justice and opportunity for all.
However, in the 2010 midterm elections, important elements of our progressive coalition failed to vote in the same numbers as they had when President Obama was on the ballot in 2008 – and the consequences for our values were devastating.
The political lessons for our struggle in 2014 and 2016 are clear. First, when progressive Americans register and vote in large numbers, we can successfully counter the wealth and power of the reactionary forces in our society.
Each of us has an important calling to fulfill in the months and years to come. Our natural allies are more likely to participate on Election Day when those whom they know and respect set the example and assist them.
Second, our values must guide our votes. Social conscience is a powerful force, both in our daily lives and in election campaigns. We must continue to stress the morality (and economic necessity) of assuring that every American receives the food, housing and healthcare that he or she needs – as well as the opportunity to earn a living wage.
Third, although Americans of Color continue to struggle against disparities in almost every aspect of our lives, a new political truth was revealed in the coalition that fashioned President Obama's victories in 2008 and 2012.
We now are full partners in a new, if somewhat fragile, political majority. This is why we are witnessing such extreme attempts to suppress and gerrymander our electoral strength.
These are lessons that only a progressive movement can fully implement – a movement in which power and accomplishment arise from the base of the pyramid rather than descending from its apex.
They are central to the strategy that can protect the progress that we have achieved and guide our nation forward toward a more perfect union.
U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings represents Maryland's 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.
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