A couple of years ago, I was at a local mall purchasing what is now a very outmoded version of the latest iPhone. There was some clamor in the hallway outside of the store, and I turned to see a group of uniformed officers with police dogs closely following a few African-American teens, clearly with the intention of keeping the young people moving, I would expect, to the nearest exit. One teen said, “I thought these days were way over.” Another remarked, “We don’t need to take this anymore.” And, in that moment, I didn’t know where I was or what year it was. I had seen and heard some things – firsthand and in real time in 2011 – that I had believed would never be repeated in this day and age. I was wrong then. And, I have been wrong over and over again as disturbing news stories of racially motivated violence appear day in and day out in the press. The road is long. The work is hard. And, the work is not finished.
I was just on the verge of adolescence when the Civil Rights Act was signed into legislation fifty years ago in 1964. The signing of the Civil Rights Act was a bright beacon; and, it came at a time when so many in my generation were restless and ready for change. The nascent feelings of anti-establishment rebellion that had been simmering within us were ready to boil over. We were more than ready for an official statement prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Or, so we thought. But, in our optimism and naiveté few, if any of us, realized how long the road and how hard the work would be. Today, the work is still not finished.
President Barack Obama’s words, as recorded in the National Proclamation on the occasion of African American History Month, strike a chord. I believe, too, that we all carry with us on this journey the power of an “unyielding hope that guided a movement as it bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice.” There were and still are courageous spirits, true hearts, brilliant minds, and bold women and men whose lives and work are dedicated to keeping this “unyielding hope” alive – a hope that will eventually and gently bend all of us toward justice.
Caroline Center, as all of the sponsored works of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, observes this wisdom daily. We seek justice by offering access to a quality education that will lead to meaningful work for capable women who would not otherwise have the opportunity. But, more than this, we stand together with the women who, in coming to Caroline Center, are themselves bending the arc of justice, if ever so slightly, through their very personal acts of courage and commitment.
The road is long. The work is hard. Any Caroline Center trainee and alumna can tell you this. But, as one alumna recently shared when she was interviewed by Dan Rodricks on Midday – “I just claimed it. I knew I had to be at Caroline Center. And, I just claimed it.” I would like to think that this act of “claiming it” is an act of courage equal to and as important as the many acts of courage we will remember and celebrate during African American History Month. And, following the good example of the women of Caroline Center, I also hope that we will do more than just remember and celebrate this month – that we will – all of us working together – act and act justly, for our sake and the sake of all humankind.
Writer’s note: I want readers to know that on that day in the mall I left the store to go speak with the officers who had ushered the teens out of the mall. I don’t remember my exact words; but, I hope that they appropriately challenged the action and served in some way to bear witness.