Letter to an Angry Friend
by Amy Hayes
I hear you. You say you’ve had it. You wonder why, if the long arc of history bends toward justice, it seems to be bending backward.
The verdict in Florida angered you, but the commentary was worse. The things people said—-on TV, on Facebook, in restaurants—showed you how little things have changed since the really bad old days.
It surprised you.
You knew helping elect Barack Obama wouldn’t fix everything. You’re not naive.
But you felt like that election was the beginning of something better in terms of the way we treat each other.
Now you say you’re not sure you believe in America, anymore.
I say: it’s not our task to give America a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. That’s a game for Boomers and talking heads.
I say: if your house has a hole in the roof, you don’t waste time pondering whether it’s a good house or a bad house in general. You do whatever you can to fix the roof.
This nation isn’t just our home. It’s our inheritance. It was handed down to us by the founders; by the men and women who labored to build it; by those who fought to protect it; and by heroes who bled to help it come closer to its ideals of Justice, Freedom, and Democracy.
I’m talking about heroes like John Lewis, who at the age of 23, led 600 citizens on a march from Selma to Birmingham to demand access to the polls.
On the Edmund Pettis Bridge, these peaceful demonstrators met Alabama State troopers, who brutally attacked the crowd with billy clubs and tear gas.
They beat John Lewis unconscious.
The events of that day changed public opinion about the struggle for voting rights, paving the way for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Historians describe this law as one of the most effective and impactful in American History.
It provided the “how” to the Fifteenth Ammendment’s “what.”
That amendment declared that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” But it took nearly a century of failed attempts at enforcement before we hit upon a strategy that actually worked.
On June 25, 2013 an AP photographer snapped a picture of (now) Congressman John Lewis as he heard the Supreme Court ruling on Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted the Voting Rights Act. The expression on his face pretty much said it all. It showed disbelief, hurt, and—-yes—anger.
That face still bears a billy-club scar.
“I’m shocked, dismayed, disappointed,” he told ABC news. “I take it very personally. I gave a little blood on that bridge for the right to vote, for the right to participate in the Democratic process.”
Within hours of the ruling, states like Texas announced they would soon enact voting restrictions that wouldn’t have been permissible under the VRA.
I suspect efforts to manipulate electoral outcomes through voter suppression will only increase. Demographic changes in the South pose an existential threat to the GOP in their most cherished stronghold. Entrenched power structures tend to act to preserve power.
Congress could take action on voting rights. But no one thinks this particular congress will be able or willing to do so.
Think about that for a moment.
We have elected a body so dysfunctional, it can’t even act to protect citizens’ most basic constitutional rights.
So what’s to be done?
Protests serve a purpose, but they won’t get us where we need to go. If we want to carry on the fight for justice, our path leads directly through the morass of contemporary politics. At this moment in history, it’s unavoidable.
Dabbling in Presidential elections every four years won’t be enough.
If we want a new Voting Rights Act, we need a new Congress.
If we want to challenge laws like Stand Your Ground, we need to start paying attention to what goes on in the state legislatures.
We must educate ourselves. We must collaborate. We must pitch in to do the tedious work of campaigns. We must recruit a new generation of leaders.
If that sounds impossible, consider this: one of the most successful progressive movements ever was organized in the American South mostly by Southerners not much older than you.
We live in a time when we’re in danger of losing ground. We can’t give up. Cynicism and inaction are the lazy way out. Activists like Lewis persisted in spite of intimidation and beatings. They faced fire hoses, police dogs, and arrests. Some of their friends and allies didn’t make it through those years alive.
August 28 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Great March on Washington. It will be a time for us to come together as a nation to ask how close we’ve come to achieving Dr. King’s dream. We’ve had half a century, after all.
On that day in 1963, a 24 year old John Lewis gave a speech before King gave his. He ended it by saying, “By the force of our demands, our determination, and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of God and democracy. We must say: ‘Wake up America! Wake up!’ For we cannot stop and we will not and cannot be patient.”
The roof needs fixing. Grab a hammer. We’re going up.