Looking to the past, committing to the future

Standing not far from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the Reflecting Pool on Saturday, I imagined a time when I couldn’t walk into a coffee shop, as I had earlier in the day, and take a seat wherever I wanted to be served.

I imagined 50 or more years ago that if I had taken a seat, say, at the front counter, I instead would have likely had hot coffee thrown in my face.

I would have been cursed, spat on, shoved, and if I didn’t move, I imagine I would have been handcuffed and arrested.

It sickens and saddens me to know that the reason for that mistreatment, in a different generation, would have been the color of my skin. I was born just after the peak of the civil rights movement, seven years after the 1963 historic March on Washington.

The 1963 march was planned to create momentum for passage of the Civil Rights Act. Leaders also believed it was a good time to tell the government how little it had done to end segregation.

I tried to imagine myself at a lunch counter sit-in. It was hard to think of it, but that time doesn’t escape me. I’ve certainly witnessed and had personal encounters with discrimination as a black American. I am also keenly aware that I would not be where I am today were it not for a generation of marchers and believers who wanted something different for their children.

Still, it’s hard for me to imagine that time. I’m not sure that I would have had the courage to be still, to remain quiet, peaceful and courteous as crowds grew increasingly angry and more violent.

I wish I could say now what I would have done then, but I don’t know. Would I fight back? Would I want to face it at all? After all, the people of that time marched and persevered for the right of everyone to have opportunities, not just themselves.

I want to believe I would have had the courage my ancestors had. I don’t know that I would have, but I suppose I would have adjusted to the times. Actually, there would have been no other option.

I believe we are born to the generation we are meant to be in, not by accident but for a purpose.

As I stood with the crowd Saturday in honor of the 50th anniversary of the march, it occurred to me that the protesters who stood in the same spot all those years ago found their strength in the spirit of brotherly love and their belief that their nonviolent protests were the only way to fight for freedom.

It occurred to me that my purpose today is to use the past to build on dreams and to be a part of helping to lead the change for the next generation. That is where I invest my courage.

I love this quote from Nelson Mandela: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

Saturday’s anniversary speeches and march encompassed a new generation of the courageous. The commemoration was about Americans carrying on dreams of change and awakened citizenry.

It is just as necessary now as it was then, even as progress has been made. For every person that is inspired by change, there are plenty more who disdain the message of hope and would work to keep it from becoming a reality.

I can only hope that the depth of change the marchers embraced 50 years ago and again on Saturday will be consistent.

Saturday’s anniversary event was about access to jobs, housing and education — just like 50 years ago. It won’t go down as one of the largest civil rights demonstrations in history, but it will go down as a moment of recognizing the need to continue doing more, as Martin Luther King III noted Saturday.

Fifty years ago the March on Washington wasn’t just a day, it was a movement. My hope is that 50 years from now, the generation of that time won’t be pushing for the same change called for today and years ago. I know my role in making that a reality, what about you?