I was born in 1969 and thus am in the first generation of African-Americans to grow up with laws and policies that say to the rest of America that I am equal. I saw housing opportunities open up for me as my parents “broke the block” and became the first African-Americans to move onto an all-white block in the East Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia in 1970. I saw educational opportunities open up such that I was able to attend a nearly all-white private, college-prep high school in the suburbs. This was the fruit of the Civil Rights movement in my life growing up in the 1970s and 80s.
Soon hundreds of thousands will gather on the National Mall to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. That speech lived on for me in classrooms and in speech competitions and was etched on my heart so that I would carry that dream into the future.
The recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court to gut the enforcement section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the decision of the jury in the George Zimmerman trial have left me wondering about the dream, worried that it is under attack and worries that professed Christians are among those helping lead those attacks. Today we now see the eroding of rights that people died for. Just hours after the Supreme Court decision to remove the enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act, the Texas legislature moved swiftly to reintroduce a voter ID law that will make it tougher for people of color, youth, the physically challenged, and the homeless to exercise their constitutional right to vote. In my home state of Pennsylvania, a similar voter ID law that could disenfranchise at least 50,000 citizens was recently passed and is in the courts. Isn’t this what we were fighting for 50 years ago – fair treatment by police and court systems and the right to vote?
These recent official policy decisions suggest that we have not arrived in some “post-racial society” after the election of the first African-American president. I am therefore convinced that this is a moment in our history when we must examine ourselves and ask if our actions and attitudes (and more importantly, our policies) towards our brothers and sisters of color are right before God. We must long for a deeper conversation about race that transcends “being nice” to a handful of black friends or Latino neighbors into a commitment to truly listen to their voices, their stories, and to work with them to make serious change to end discrimination and inequality.
I have hope. At a recent gathering of POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild), the faith-based organizing movement that I lead in Philadelphia, we began a serious dialogue about the Zimmerman trial. The conversation was palpably tense at points. Some of the white clergy leaders thought the trial was fair, while most African-American clergy and several of our white clergy colleagues were dismayed. Yet, what started as a heated conversation became an honest dialogue on race, class, and social policies. One of our colleagues talked about what he was taught to do when stopped by a police officer as an African-American. Several white clergy had no idea the danger of being stopped for “driving while black.” It was painful but refreshing to have this conversation with my clergy brothers and sisters, and we realized that we must bring this conversation to our flocks and communities as well.
The conversation also generated action: POWER will host “The New Jim Crow and Economics” on Aug. 22 at Mother Bethel AME church in Philadelphia at 6 p.m., as part of a bus tour lead by the PICO National Network that will conclude at the 50th anniversary celebration of the March on Washington.
I am convinced that unless the faith community leads the way in this conversation, we are destined to repeat the past and continually fight rearguard battles. When I head to D.C. for the March on Aug. 24, I, like Dr. King, want to dream again that my children will not have to face the challenges I am facing these days, and I want to pray that the church leads the way to restore the dream.
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Bishop Dwayne D. Royster is executive director of POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild) and senior pastor at Living Water United Church of Christ.