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Sherrilyn Ifill in The Root: Even as we celebrate the March on Washington, democracy must constantly be maintained

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Monday, August 19, 2013

Marchers in support of Trayvon Martin

In an opinion piece published in The Root this morning, Sherrilyn Ifill, LDF's President & Director-Counsel, pens a long manifesto about the state of civil rights in America. In the wake of the Supreme Court's decision to egregiously undermine the Voting Rights Act and the verdict in the Zimmerman trial, and amid high unemployment numbers and swelling prisons, "it is the summer of our discontent, just as it was in 1963."

To be sure, we are in a period of great challenge to the very essence of democracy in this country, to which there must be a powerful civil rights response. The march 50 years ago, and the period known as the civil rights movement, has ended. But there is a difference between the historically bound "civil rights movement" and the movement for civil rights. The former was an extraordinary period in our nation's history. The latter is an ongoing effort born of the recognition that no win is permanent, that democracy must be consistently refreshed, maintained and prodded. As we prepare to commemorate the historic March on Washington, we must also reflect on new challenges we face in the post-civil rights era. 

These challenges are nothing compared with dogs, nightsticks and water hoses. But these challenges' elusiveness and the seduction of the post-civil rights narrative that lies at their core makes them uniquely difficult to overcome.

The piece also highlights structural obstacles that impede efforts to fully engage in the ongoing struggle for civil rights and equality. These barriers include deliberate efforts to turn the civil rights movement into a historic relic and to glamorize the movement as well structured and highly strategic, even though, as Taylor Branch noted, "People in the civil rights movement were in perpetual, internal conflict about what to do next ."

Although times have changed, our strengths remain. Freedom Summer has given way to Moral Mondays, and Freedom Riders to Dream Defenders. The courtroom, the boardroom, the legislatures, the streets, the schoolhouse and the human heart and imagination are still our battlefield. The ballot box, our wallets, our voices, our commitment to equality and justice and the collective strength of our communities remain our sharpest weapons. Our opponents almost always overreach. That is our strength, too.

But even if this summer of our discontent becomes a glorious winter, it will only be for a season. The spring will bring new battles. And we will be called to the front again in the ongoing battle to sustain the health and vitality of our democracy.