By Jesse Jackson
Benefits of a long life include lived memory and perspective. Today, it is easy to despair about America – with its extreme inequality, its continuing racial divide, its fragile democracy,
Its partisan feuds, and the shaky state of an economy hammered by pandemic and catastrophic climate change. Yet it’s important to remember how far we have come, the progress that has been made, and the possibility of change that is the promise of America.
“Make America Great Again” is a popular slogan – but it’s worth remembering that in some ways, America today is far greater than it was in the past.
I can remember when African Americans growing up in South Carolina could barely hope for change. Now, we can vote for change. Racial divides still exist, but we have achieved greater equality under the law today than we could hardly have imagined 70 years ago. America is still a work in progress, but progress has been made. Black soldiers coming out of World War II returned to a country that would not allow them to stay in a white hotel or to use a whites-only restroom. Across the South, schools were legally segregated and unequal.
Blacks and women couldn’t sit on juries. Blacks were systemically denied the right to vote.
Today, African-American mayors govern in cities across the South. Blacks, Latinos, women and Asian Americans are competing in and often winning elections. A Black man was elected president of the country with a majority of the votes – twice. Board rooms that once were all white and male now have opened the doors, at least a crack, to minorities and women. African-American actors find roles in advertisements for general audiences. The popular culture is far more integrated than most of our neighborhoods. This week we will celebrate Serena Williams as the greatest of all time – in tennis of all things. Dr. King’s “dream” became famous. We’re still dreaming today, with much to be done, but some of the dream has already come true.
Progress is never easy and never unopposed. Every era of reform sparks a reaction. We see that now. When Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat from the South, championed the Voting Rights Act and the war on poverty, Republicans responded with their “Southern strategy,” grounding the party in the South among whites embittered by the change. Police brutality against Blacks – some of it caught on video for the first time – sparked the largest interracial protests across the country in our history. Now the reaction against Black Lives Matter and police reform is a central theme in our elections. Inequality has reached obscene extremes, yet Republican obstruction aided by a few corrupted Democrats blocked long overdue tax reforms.
As the culture has become more enlightened, the reaction has become ever fiercer. Progress is not a guaranteed outcome. A right-wing majority on the Supreme Court overturns settled law and precedent to rule that abortion is unconstitutional. Justice Clarence Thomas argues that contraception, and the right to love the one you choose are similarly at risk. Conservative justices have opened the floodgates to dark money in our elections. They’ve invented gun rights that would have astounded the Founders. They’ve gutted the Voting Rights Act and are targeting affirmative action.
In the end, however, democracy empowers the people to decide. Even a reactionary majority in the Supreme Court can be overruled. When the people in the red state of Kansas voted overwhelmingly to protect the right to abortion, they sparked a response that is spreading across the country.
Now our democracy itself has come under attack. Yet it is worth noting that when Donald Trump sought to overturn the results of a presidential election, public officials at the state level – almost all of them Republican ironically – and public officials in the Justice Department and the White House, including the vice president, again all loyal Republicans – stood firm on respecting the people’s choice.
We have every reason to be frustrated and enraged by the inequities and the injustices of today’s America. Sometimes it seems that those who want to take us backward are on the march, and those who want to make a more perfect union are in retreat. Yet, look back at the past decades, we’ve come a long way – despite the setbacks, the rancor, new unmet challenges. Despair may be fashionable, but hope is rational. And with hope, commitment and energy, we can continue to make America better.