by Reggie Shuford
Black History Month is a dedicated time every year to celebrate the achievements and contributions of Black Americans and to reflect on the long struggle to finally realize the constitutional promise of liberty and justice for all.
After the past year, with both scenes of horror and moments of hope, it feels especially important to take some extra time and space this month to reflect on the progress we’ve made in the fight for racial justice and the real challenges that remain ahead.
It was a year that saw Black Americans especially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, disproportionately facing financial ruin, illness, and death, compared to white Americans.
It was a year that we lost George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Walter Wallace and too many other lives to the ongoing scourge of police violence and white supremacy.
It was a year where non-violent Black Lives Matter demonstrators were brutalized by police while violent white insurrectionists were able to storm the streets of DC and the halls of Congress and threaten to murder elected officials with little resistance from law enforcement. Five lives were lost as a result of that deadly insurrection.
It was a year, like so many in our nation’s past, where some politicians seemed to stop at nothing to disenfranchise millions of Black voters and perpetuate the big lie that the election was stolen from the previous president.
At times, it was easy to slip into feelings of hopelessness as we observed America do to Black Americans what it historically has always done.
But, looking back over this past year, I hold out hope that these past months will go down as a turning point in the history of Black Americans and, indeed, America as a whole. Because Black history is American history.
I think of the passage, the origins of which have been attributed to the words of Mahatma Gandhi and the labor organizer Nicholas Klein:
First they ignore you.
Then they mock you.
Then they fight you.
Then you win.
With all the horrors of recent months and years, it occurs to me — we aren’t in a fight. We are in the fight.
And we are going to win. I am a firm believer in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
I am hopeful, because it wasn’t all bad this past year.
Think about it.
2020 was the year that millions of people from all backgrounds, across the country and around the world, literally risked their lives amidst a deadly pandemic to peacefully demonstrate against racism, police violence, and white supremacy.
The phrase “Black Lives Matter” went from movement to mainstream, with corporations scrambling to proclaim their racial justice bona fides via social media posts and paid advertising.
Many professional athletes now imprint messages on their uniforms in support of racial justice. Even soccer players in the English Premier League continue to take a Colin-Kaepernick-inspired knee against police brutality and racism before the opening whistle of each match.
Recent movies and television shows feature Black stories that show the full scope of Black humanity outside of the parameters of slavery and civil rights — without resorting to that old Hollywood trope of annexing Black trauma to source those narratives.
But let’s be clear: What I describe above are mostly symbolic and rhetorical victories. That won’t cut it.
Well-meaning tweets from corporations, woke athletes, and the turn to more honest stories about the Black American experience aren’t going to, on their own, root out racism and white supremacy. Indeed, much work remains.
But we must remember that in the history of every popular movement for justice, a shift in rhetoric almost always precedes meaningful progress, if not a seismic shift in popular opinion.
We are at a crossroads in this country; it is up to us to take the right path.
With that in mind, we can’t be satisfied with rhetorical wins. We must instead see these positive changes as an invitation to double-down on our commitment to doing the real work necessary to finally realize the true promise of America’s most touted ideals.
This is Black History in motion. Let’s go!
Reggie Shuford is the executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.