One of the earliest moments of enlightenment in my childhood was when I purchased Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Stride Toward Freedom” from the Scholastic Book Club in elementary school. Though I was somewhat familiar with the civil rights movement that was enveloping the country, the depths of that struggle only became real to me after reading King’s account of the Montgomery bus boycott in his book.
What caught my attention was the degree of sacrifice and commitment Black people exhibited in Montgomery by boycotting the public transit system for over a year. I couldn’t imagine the determination Blacks had to endure walking during inclement weather or the willingness to support each other through carpooling. It gave me an enormous sense of pride knowing that Black people were willing to not only voice opposition to segregation but take action to bring Jim Crow down. For me it affirmed what I had always believed and what those Sunday School lessons in Black history taught me – that the descendants of African slaves in America were a mighty people who not only sung about ‘overcoming’ but took it upon themselves to change not only their circumstances but the nation as well.
Reading “Stride Toward Freedom” and seeing images of Blacks being brutalized on southern streets, hearing Dr. King and Malcolm X, and later Angela Davis, Huey Newton, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bobby Seale and others articulate a liberation framework and seeing Martin and Malcolm struck down made me realize that justice was not just simply a goal but it had to be a lifestyle if Blacks in America ever expected to truly be free. The 1960s and early 1970s for me were a time of courage and action. As much as we remember certain flashpoints of those two decades, we should not forget that large swaths of Black Americans had embraced a justice lifestyle – a willingness to speak out, go to jail, face the brutality of racists and jeopardize what little financial security they had to declare their intention to live as free people and full citizens in the United States.
As a child I felt that Black adults were all-in; prepared to engage the battle against racism and take on institutions in our country that were upholding a racist system that had diminished Blacks from the moment they arrived in chains on America’s soil. I was motivated by the boldness of Black protest and the intelligence of the Black response to Jim Crow. As early as third grade I pledged to take up the battle and readied myself to live a justice lifestyle.
It is why the activities of the Black Lives Matter movement is encouraging and uplifting. Despite attempts to discount the movement and mischaracterize its intent, it is simply an extension of the civil rights movement but better suited for the challenges facing Blacks today. And it must be acknowledged, or those of us who know need to speak up, and remind naysayers that the same criticism that has been leveled against Black Lives Matter was hurled at King and his generation. Many white Americans will never acknowledge the generational oppression of Blacks and the accumulated privilege they have accrued in the process, so worrying about their “opinion” or seeking their validation is a waste of time. If we are about the business of justice our time is better spent focusing laser-like on dismantling systems of oppression in America that give license to the abuse and mistreatment of our people.
What a “justice lifestyle” represents to me is that your point of reference, your state of being is centered on uplifting the race, no matter your vocation or economic status. And when living this lifestyle injustice is intolerable and unacceptable. It means that speaking out is not an option but a requirement. If you are living a justice lifestyle, you accept sacrifice as essential to improving conditions for generations to come; you are not distracted by materialism and constantly think how your personal resources can be used to expand opportunities for others. You take joy in community elevation and reject the notion that collaboration is not possible. In other words, you don’t buy into the nonsense that Black people can’t work together for the greater good.
The times we are in demand that those who are conscious embrace a justice lifestyle. The brewing activism we are seeing can only be sustained if we fully commit ourselves to the cause of justice. It means, like our parents and grandparents, we might not secure our personal wants but like our elders we will position our children closer to freedom. And given the resources we do have and the knowledge we now possess, we have the potential to transform this nation in our lifetime. The real question is one that can only be answered by some deep introspection. We can keep pretending that freedom will be extended by the benevolence of a society that has never viewed Blacks as worthy, or human for that matter, or we can hear the voice of Frederick Douglass saying “without struggle, there is no progress” and on a daily basis be relentless in the pursuit of justice.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.