Two things happened last week — one public, the other personal — that made me reflect on how far we’ve come as a nation, how we got here, and what it will take to keep that journey moving forward.
Maryland, my home state, inaugurated its first black governor, Wes Moore. It’s a description I thought might go to me four years ago when I became only the third person and the first African American to win 1 million votes in statewide race. Unfortunately my incumbent opponent was one of the other two.
Attending the inauguration made me think about how we’ve gotten here — more slowly than anyone who truly believes in our American ideals would consider right, but making steady progress all along the way. My vote total helped Wes, just as President Obama’s victory in 2012 eased my way. I think back to being a youth leader in my California county for Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential bid.
While we can bemoan the pace for good reason, we shouldn’t overlook that change has come. That long arc of the moral universe remains. Even when we fall short of something like an electoral victory, we make progress.
The question remains the eternal one when we see injustice, inequity and threats like climate change that are unquestionably existential. How do we pick up the pace?
On the same day, I celebrated my 50th birthday. That means I’ve been organizing and advocating for change for more than half my life. I’m lucky in many respects. Thirty years ago, celebrating someone else’s 21st birthday, I remember standing with other young black men somberly pouring out our drinks in memory of our friends who had been killed or imprisoned before we got to college.
I’m luckier still that I’ve had people throughout my life — starting with my parents — who have helped me find my commitment and learn ways to put it into effective practice.
People like Alvin Chambliss, the North Mississippi Rural Legal Services lawyer, who asked me to lead protests against closing two historically black universities to turn them into prisons. People like Norman Hill, a protege of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, and union leaders Richard Womack and Bill Lucy who trained me (along with Stacey Abrams and Derrick Johnson) at an AFL-CIO summer institute for black student organizers. People like Bishop Desmond Tutu and Colin Powell.
I remain deeply committed to passing forward all that knowledge and insight, so hard won by folks who preceded me in ways that paved my road. For me that starts with listening to young leaders and organizers both to understand their perspectives as well as to give them space to air what they are compelled to get out. For me, change starts with listening.
What I hope to impart are the big ideas that were passed along to me, like Gen. Powell’s lesson that finding the one common cause we can share can be much more powerful than a hundred things that we may disagree about. Finally, I want to charge them to use their own gifts, talents, and knowledge to make the progress we still need. They will know how best to reach their peers and those who come after them. A quinquagenarian like me will never be able to use the tools of their generation to their fullest effect. What I hope to do is inspire and applaud.
That’s an optimistic view, I know. One that I get genetically perhaps. Just before my grandmother died, she took a call from Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who had been a graduate student in social work decades before when my grandmother was creating Child Protective Services in Baltimore. It was that long arc in view. It was my grandmother who gave me the perspective that still guides me. ““Baby, it’s true. Pessimists are right more often, but optimists win more often,” she told me once. “In this life, you have to decide what’s more important to you. As for me, I’ll take winning.”
Ben Jealous is incoming executive director of the Sierra Club, America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization; former national president of the NAACP; and professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania. His new book “Never Forget Our People Were Always Free” was just published.