By Kisha Bird
We are soldiers in the army.
We’ve got to fight although we have to cry,
We’ve got to hold up the blood-stained banner,
We’ve got to hold it up until we die.
We Are Soldiers In The Army, Rev. James Cleveland
Reverend C.T. Vivian and Congressman John Lewis two civil rights giants and voices for justice died within hours of one another on Friday, July 17, 2020. I cried all Saturday morning. I was heartbroken. I texted a good friend, “I feel like we’ve lost members of the family.” He responded, “Because we have.”
It’s been nearly a month since their passing and we are left with questions, what has been left undone? And are we ready to pick up the mantle of justice and continue the fight? There are many battles at hand when considering the quest for justice — from combatting voter suppression to dismantling mass incarceration and structural racism that permeates education, health care, and housing, just to name a few. But what has been on my mind since that Saturday morning and what has been needling me, like a thorn in my side, is John Lewis’s speech in 1963 at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the unfinished business we have yet to achieve. He and other civil rights and labor leaders made ten demands that day nearly 57 years ago, Ten!
- Comprehensive and effective civil rights legislation from the present Congress — without compromise or filibuster — to guarantee all Americans access to all public accommodations, decent housing, adequate and integrated education, and the right to vote
- Withholding of Federal funds from all programs in which discrimination exists.
- Desegregation of all school districts in 1963.
- Enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment — reducing Congressional representation of states where citizens are disfranchised.
- A new Executive Order banning discrimination in all housing supported by federal funds.
- Authority for the Attorney General to institute injunctive suits when any constitutional right is violated.
- A massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers — Negro and white — on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.
- A national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living. (Government surveys show that anything less than $2.00 an hour fails to do this.)
- A broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to include all areas of employment which are presently excluded.
- A federal Fair Employment Practices Act barring discrimination by federal, state, and municipal governments, and by employers, contractors, employment agencies, and trade unions.
Much can be said about the progress of each of these demands over the past five-plus decades — the starts and stops — the two steps forward and ten steps back. Like Sisyphus, we find ourselves continuously pushing the boulder up the hill in our efforts to make this country live up to its founding ideals. Right now, I’d like to focus on two interconnected issues that are as poignant today as they were then: Jobs and Police Brutality.
John Lewis, at the age of 23, began his fiery speech on that historic day, painting a picture of the economic violence far too many Black people were subject to by saying “We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of, for hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here, for they are receiving starvation wages or no wages at all.” Notably, in the very next passage of his original speech he wrote that he did not wholeheartedly support President Kennedy’s civil rights bill, for “There’s not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality.”
These prophetic words are haunting, especially at a time of pandemic, economic recession, public lynchings, and uprisings for racial justice. Violence against Black people is not happenstance in America. It manifests in many forms. For example, economic violence is the use of human bodies for free labor, no wages — case in point, slavery — to the all-too-common exploitation of labor and work for low wages and/or unequal wages; and the willful neglect of economic conditions in Black communities and lack of investment in them by public and private sector spectators alike. Likewise, violence against Black people is also police brutality, harassment by law enforcement, and unfair treatment throughout the criminal legal system. This violence is interconnected. It is physical, social-emotional, psychological, and punishing. It reveals a value judgement that Black Lives Do Not Matter.
Congress is considering another stimulus package in response to the unrelenting COVID-19 public health and economic crisis. While Congressional action is stalled, families are struggling to put food on the table, millions are out of work — including a quarter of young people aged 16–24 — and too many essential workers continue to risk their lives without proper personal protective equipment, worker protections, and strong paid family and medical leave policies. Senate Republicans released their proposal, which neglected to rise to the urgency of this moment, failing to meet the needs of people who are unemployed and in desperate need of health and economic supports. President Trump’s COVID-19 executive actions issued last week are nothing more than empty promises and further threaten the health, safety, and economic well-being of the country. These executive actions do not address food, nutrition, and housing needs, and they slash the economic relief that was provided through the CARES Act to millions of unemployed workers. At the same time, President Trump and Attorney General (AG) Barr are defending the administration’s law-and order approach to addressing police brutality and racial injustice in Black communities. Last month, they announced an expanded “Operation Legend,” a law enforcement surge that directs the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service, DEA, and ATF to significantly increase resources into target cities under the guise of fighting high levels of violent crime.
My mother always told me that people show you who they are. In January 2017, President Trump tweeted his intent to “send in the feds” to cities like Chicago — and now with an even more willing AG, he has acted on those words. These law-and-order approaches are demonstrably failed policies that echo a modern-day political playbook ripped from the 1960s that vilified communities of color and further systematized racial inequities in the criminal justice system.
Police do not keep our communities safe. Young people know this. In a GenForward survey, only 30 percent of African-Americans and 39 percent of Latinx young people believe that you can trust the police to do what is right. John Lewis knew this. In his final words to us published on the day he was buried, he wrote “Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland, and Breonna Taylor. He was 14 when he was killed, and I was only 15 years old at the time. I will never ever forget the moment when it became so clear that he could easily have been me.”
“I want to know, which side is the federal government on? The revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery.” — John Lewis, original speech written for the March on Washington for Jobs, 1963
In this time of unprecedented crisis, what is needed from the federal government is leadership. We desperately need leadership that acknowledges systemic and pervasive racism in law enforcement and the criminal legal system; divests in the militarization of police and criminalization of communities of color; and addresses the unacceptable public health and economic consequences of COVID-19, like the youth employment crisis. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unadjusted young adult unemployment rate jumped this year from 7.6 percent in January to 20 percent in June. For Black youth and young adults, their economic crisis did not begin with the COVID-19 crisis, and it will not end when the economy rebounds in the future. Black young adults ages 20–24 had an unemployment rate of 13.3 percent in January-before COVID-19, while white young adults had an unemployment rate of 6.4 percent. Even though the July jobs numbers were improved since April, Black young people still had an unemployment rate of nearly 26 percent. Their white counterparts are at 16.5 percent. Although not a zero-sum game, we should direct existing resources at the federal level to programs that support healing-centered approaches, including youth employment pathways for the millions who are unemployed. While this is not an exhaustive list, our national leaders must take these actions immediately:
- Congress must address the youth unemployment crisis and provide massive funding for public employment that prioritizes Black youth and young adults and those who have historically been economically marginalized, while also strengthening the economic and workforce infrastructure in communities and for workers. This should include such strategies as raising the wage, providing robust annual appropriations to state and local communities, enforcing labor protections, and combating employment discrimination.
- Congress must put forth legislation that will protect Black communities from over-policing, harassment, and police brutality, as well as invest in healing-centered approaches. Beyond law enforcement training and accountability, Congress must recognize, confront, and overturn the destructive consequences of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (the Crime Bill). Congress must commit to dismantling and defunding mass incarceration policies and incentivizing states and localities to do the same.
Rev. C.T. Vivian, in a 2016 speech to the Children’s Defense Fund, said “It is up to us to create the world we really want…” If we are to honor the legacy of John Lewis, we must do as President Obama reminded us in his eulogy to “be more like John.” If we are to continue the work of elders like Rev. C.T. Vivian to advance equity and equal treatment for Black people, we must be bold and courageous. Our here and now depends on it, so does our future.