Blessed are those who plant seeds in the faith that others might enjoy the forest. This Saturday is my 75th birthday. I have been blessed to see how many of the seeds we planted have taken root and turned to sturdy trees.
I was born in Greenville, S.C., to an unwed teenage mother. I grew up in a home poor in resources but rich in love, supported by a loving family, a tight community and a strong church.
Yet we quickly learned that we were like birds in a cage, caught in the bars of segregation. I went to segregated schools with double shifts. Often we had one book for six of us. Public spaces — bathrooms, water fountains, pools — were closed to us. We sat at the back of the bus. We saw no black police officers or firefighters, no black car dealers. We were expected to adjust our hopes down to fit our circumstances.
But change was in the air and we rattled the bars of that cage. My parents, classmates, teachers and minister instilled high hopes and expectations. My classmates and I chafed at the limitations. Sit-ins began to take place across the South. As a college student in Greensboro, N.C., I helped lead demonstrations to desegregate the theater and local cafeterias. After being arrested in 1960 for the first time for trying to use a public library in my hometown of Greenville, I lost my fear of jail, experiencing the dignity that comes from standing up — or sitting in — for a cause that is just. I was joined by a partner for life and children to nurture.
I met Dr. King, and was honored to learn at his side. We grew close at Selma. We suffered the sting of de facto segregation in Chicago and its suburbs. We marched, confronting injustice with nonviolent protest. Nonviolence demanded discipline in the face of provocation, love in the face of hate. Many were injured; some gave their lives. The blood of the martyrs haunted us but propelled us. And that movement transformed America.
After Dr. King was taken from us, I fought to make his dream real. But the war on poverty was lost in the rice paddies of Vietnam. Our agenda couldn’t get a hearing. We began a drive to register African-Americans to vote. After seeking out other candidates, I decided to take our case to the American people, running for president in 1984 and 1988. We registered millions, and helped change the national agenda. And 20 years later, I was blessed to be in Grant Park celebrating the election of Barack Obama.
I imagine sometimes the struggle for equal rights as a symphony. The first movement — with the clash of chains and the cannons of war — was to end slavery, culminating in the Civil War, the Civil Rights Amendments to the Constitution and a Reconstruction that showed the potential of multiracial coalition politics. The second movement began with the drums of reaction — the Klan, the Supreme Court legalizing apartheid, to its shame, 100 years of segregation. But the symphony ends with trumpets hailing the triumph of the civil rights movement — the Supreme Court outlawing segregated schools, the opening of public accommodations, the Voting Rights Act.
Dr. King left us, and the third movement — the movement for equal opportunity and for economic justice — remains unfinished. The racial wealth gap yawns at record levels. Poverty disproportionately blights the lives of too many black mothers and babies. The systemic bias of our criminal justice systems literally takes lives, as we’ve witnessed over and over again. We have a long way to go.
At 75, I see how far we have come. Our progress has always come from struggle and sacrifice. The powerful do not dispense change; the people must demand it. And now, I am buoyed by the movements that are stirring — by Black Lives Matter, the Dreamers, the Fight for $15, and the Democracy movement pushing back against attacks on voting rights and the poison of big money.
In my lifetime, the civil rights movement has made America better. Our diversity is now our strength. Doors once locked have been forced open. We reject those who would divide us along lines of race or religion or region. And we continue to work, to march, to demonstrate and to push for a more perfect union. At 75, I celebrate my blessings.