Hitting the Wall of Progress

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on the March from Selma: Fifty Years Later. Read other perspectives here.

Fifty years after Selma, battered and weary, we're still marching. Wrapped in new branded leathers, the calluses are still fresh for some, but old and thickened for others. New members have joined with unfettered vigor, but the race to unqualified freedom has proven to be more marathon than sprint. The Wall has claimed its share of casualties, though, however distant, the goal remains within our sight. Our astigmatic lenses of uncommon fortune mislead us to believe we are closer, while enticing others to accept an unnumbered place in the race that is just "good enough."

Have we made progress? Yes. The evidence of a man that looks like me, with the label of Commander-in-Chief, stands firmly as testimony to a nation where a man that once looked like he could be but a slave. However, if I were to suggest such advancement to a mother of a slain black youth, whose life was taken without consequence by the hands of blue-coated militiamen, they'd rebuke me and demand my own atonement for making such claims.

The measurement of progress is relative to one's expectations. Where some believe they can see the mountaintop from their homes in the valley, others trail the back of the line on new era plantations where they fill growing pipelines to prison. From behind similar bars of a Birmingham cell, where Martin constructed the letters of condemnation that still ring true to the apathetic ear, grows despair often eclipsing the light of the Dreamer's tomorrow. Some may measure progress in feet while others do so in inches, but what we know and can unequivocally agree on, is that the 54-mile stretch of land from Selma to Montgomery is but a waypoint, a feeder into a much longer journey measured in sweat.

We have overcome enough that where our laws once failed to keep our nation segregated, we now choose to exalt divisive ideologies that keep us separate. Partisan politics, poll taxes designed to restrict the vote, and pandering to fear with permeative tropes that elicit images of "other" detract from the work of building a unified nation. Indivisibility has been the transient specter in our realities, appearing more often in our national tragedies rather than our daily lives, where egocentric disinterest or blissful insouciance takes root.

Selma was about the right to vote, the right to be heard in the decision-making process that would steer one of the most powerful nations in the world. It was a march to reclaim the remaining two-fifths of the silenced voices that were lost through the Middle Passage and a march to unquiet the whispers of muffled cries under the hanging tree. It was the "cashing in" on Lincoln's promise; it was an exercise to regain what was suppressed from a ratified amendment, and the balancing of an equation to a grand compromise that many believe should never have been struck.

Perhaps too wearied, many of us have forgotten the price of Selma and fail in the struggle against lethargy and indifference. Old spirituals and anthems of yesterday's movement that were once chanted in solidarity down the stretches of a roadside that unified the faithful, the godless, and the countless unlabeled allies, have given way to hashtags that scream "I still matter" — because we still need to convince some that "we still matter." The equally painful reciprocating indictment that comes with that message is that not only do some feel as if they need to convince others that they matter, but they already feel as if they do not. Our nation has failed them.

To be heard, to be seen, to exist — and to matter equally — is the need. Yes, we must take our messages to the streets in multi-colored masses when our human sensibilities are most egregiously assailed, but many of us are too afraid or, worse, have become pacified with the riches granted by the Wall of "good enough" progress garnered through luck, individual hard work, or as some believe, divine intervention.

Fifty years later, we have overcome many of the legal hurdles that stopped our progress, yet equal opportunity in employment, housing, and education remains elusive. The momentum of our marches has slowed, but the passion for the justice it represents has not. I hear it in the sermons, the protests, and the movements, so there is cause for cautious optimism, though I too must learn to push past my own Wall of cynical restraint. I want to cry freedom running freely, vaulting from rooftops shouting "we have overcome" and yet, I fear that despite our leaps we are bounded by the reality that it has only been fifty years and many of us are still learning the power of our choices.

Humanists, religious persons, and our growing unaffiliated — anyone who believes in the equality of all — must continue to rise and confront the biases and stereotypes that plague our discourse on race. Understanding that one's privilege exists in various forms goes a long way in understanding why even after fifty years we have not seen judicial or economic symmetry. Change begins with the one in the mirror, so why do so many shy away from it? Nonetheless, our fight has expanded, finding intersections at race, gender, and identification. For the further advancement of all, the Golden Rule must trump the rhetorical dogmatic baton of superiority, and we must reject the incongruity of systems that continue, regardless of how far we have come, to anchor us to the remnants of societal shackles. When our lack of endurance to push past the Wall sets in, we must ask ourselves to give more. We must believe that we can. We can overcome, especially if we remember to participate in the unending conversation that is our nation's dream.