Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Conyers: A Letter to Our Ancestors: To Those Who Came Before Us

U.S. Congressman John Conyers, Jr. at Henry Ford Museum
veiwing of the Emancipation Proclamation
To those who came before us:

In the darkest watches of the night, you dared to dream of a day when your descendants could breathe the air of freedom. As we mark the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, we salute the boldness of your dreams and reflect upon the value of your sacrifices. 

In many ways, the lives of your children have evolved beyond imagining; in others their circumstances are shockingly familiar. You would be proud of the progress that our nation has made since the days of the Civil War and Emancipation. Your children have become captains of industry, important contributors in every field of academics, and world leaders in government -- one even occupies the seat of Lincoln in the White House. 

The road to these successes, however, has been neither straight nor smooth. It was 100 hundred years before a rainbow of Americans gathered in Washington to hear your son, Dr. Martin Luther King, give voice to your dreams and inspire us to continue this complex struggle toward racial equality in America. The full promise of Emancipation has not yet been realized and even in the 21st century many sacrifices are required to protect hard-won progress. 

Throughout the protests, marches and sit-ins, your strength in enduring the pain and the bondage of slavery gave us the determination to continue this fight. Our struggle was not one for African Americans alone. We fought for the very soul of this nation, that the American dream could have meaning for every citizen, and for every person who aspired to reach our shores. Your early sacrifices inspired the great diversity of the American people and were held as an example for those struggling for freedom and justice everywhere.
Reflecting on our path, one cannot forget or undervalue your gifts of vigilance and determination. In a test of our resolve, every success was met with a series of setbacks. Without these gifts, we may have lost hope and direction. Even today, after gaining the franchise and electing an African-American president, we must take care to protect these hard-won rights from slipping away as some in this new generation would divert us from the path toward a more just society. We will maintain our vigilance because your example has taught us that we have only traveled a short way on our long journey to freedom. 

The successes of a few of our people may tempt some to believe that the struggle for equality has reached its conclusion and we are a race-blind society. That message ignores our young sons who are disproportionately trapped by a criminal justice system in a prison pipeline, targeted because they have insufficient access to education and employment opportunity, and far too easy access to drugs and guns. Some have labeled them an "underclass" caste, pushed to the margins of society and warehoused in prisons. Our task is not just to celebrate the successes but analyze and repair the problems that cause so many to be mired in hopelessness. Remembering our collective past and the path since emancipation makes us responsible for addressing this 21st century dilemma. Respect for your memory will not allow us to turn away.

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