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George H. Lambert Jr.

For me, last week’s celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday came quickly on the heels of watching Selma, an inspiring and challenging film about Dr. King’s unyielding crusade for voting rights—as well as a deep personal loss. Just before the New Year, we lost Ferdinand Day, a mentor of mine whose photo sits on my credenza.

Tall, dignified and gentle, Fred (as his friends called him) was a driving force in integrating the public schools of Alexandria, Va., an amazing story that was brought to life in the 2000 Denzel Washington movie Remember the Titans. The first African- American to chair a Virginia school board, my mentor worked tirelessly for Black rights in his community. He would remind us, “Always comport yourself in a dignified manner, so the focus is on the issue, not on you.” Fred taught me many lessons about being a leader and imparted critical values, including an abiding sense of fairness, an aversion for complacency, and an appreciation for the wonderful mosaic of diversity.

DISTRUST

Losing Fred, watching Selma, and observing MLK Day prompted a reflection on the central paradox of African-American life: We have made incredible strides economically, politically and legally, and yet we seem to be fighting many of the same battles over and over again. In light of the heroism and sacrifices of Dr. King and his generation, the education and career prospects of our young people should be much brighter than they are, and our society should be far more just. 

Indeed, the work of the Civil Rights Movement continues. Those of us who watched Selma may have been temporarily cheered by the triumphs it chronicles, but one look at the headlines quickly brings us back to hard reality. The fact is, we cannot settle for the victories won by Dr. King, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, Ferdinand Day and other names from the history books.

History is still being written. The struggle continues, and nonprofit groups that organize people of color and give them a voice are needed more than ever. We’re still marching. The world has changed in many ways since the days of Selma, and there are more ways than ever to create meaningful change in our complex, globalized society.

Yes, I believe we will continue to make progress, thanks to anyone—black, white, etc.—who cares enough to include the #blacklivesmatter hash tag in their Twitter feed and everyone who reads and shares black-focused publications like the AFRO. Furthermore, our region is blessed by a vibrant new generation of leaders who surely will go beyond yesterday’s hard-won victories.

I could single out many such leaders, but the events of recent months have cemented my respect and admiration for one in particular. Charis Goff is president of our Thursday Network, the young professionals auxiliary of the Greater Washington Urban League. Charis helped to orchestrate our organization’s participation in December’s “Justice for All” march and in her brief career has already proven herself as an inspirational and empathetic leader. Recently named to the “Top Forty Under 40” by Prince George’s County Social Innovation Fund, she is showing signs of promise that should give the entire region reason to be optimistic. One day, this brand of leadership may earn her a place in the history books alongside those who have fought for, in President Johnson’s words, “the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.”

George H. Lambert Jr. is president and CEO of the Greater Washington Urban League.