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Congressman Hank Johnson

Representing the 4th District of Georgia

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act

March 5, 2015
Editorial

Isaac Newton once said, "If I see farther it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants." As someone who has witnessed the evolution of race relations in this country, I can proudly say that as a member of Congress that's what I'm doing.

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I am standing on the shoulders of giants who knocked down the barriers to opportunity, who knocked down the barriers to exposure, who knocked down the barriers to living the life I've imagined for myself.

It is because of the strategies of Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, John Lewis, Ella Baker, Rosa Parks, Prathia Baker, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and countless others that I have had the opportunities I've had to grow from a young man in Washington, D.C., to a U.S. congressman representing the Fourth District of Georgia.

The passage of the Civil Rights Act was a turning point in our history because it made it illegal to discriminate on people based on "race, color, religion, or national origin" in public establishments. It also prohibited employment discrimination and discrimination in federally funded programs. These protections aided in the desegregation of public schools and helped to create a black middle and upper class.

The Civil Rights Act granted us social equality under the law. But even to this day, the struggle for equality is not over. We still live in fear that our African American sons will be killed by police. Fear of black men is so ingrained in our nation's psyche that we even see it in how some members -- not all, but some -- of law enforcement, the people we are supposed to trust to protect us from danger and harm, use excessive force against our children. Traveling down to Ferguson, Missouri, and seeing images of protestors after the murder of Michael Brown made it clear the struggle is not over.

People think that because we have a black president race is no longer an issue. That people are no longer suppressed and that all is well with the world. This creates a type of complacency, a type of message that extra efforts don't need to be made to level the playing field and I've had enough.

There are three ways, we as a community can create more opportunity -- voting at the polls, educating ourselves and our children, and simply supporting one another.

Our forefathers died for our right to vote. A huge blow was dealt to our voting rights when the Supreme Court struck down Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby v. Holder last year. And that is why I support the Voting Rights Amendment Act that will hold states accountable for trying to deprive people of the right to vote and I support adding the right to vote as an amendment to the Constitution.

I will continue to do everything I can to get these pieces of legislation passed. But it will be for nothing if people don't go out to the polls. Not only is it important to vote for the president every four years, but it is just as important -- if not more -- to vote in midterm elections and primaries. If Democrats don't show up to the polls to vote, someone else will, and that's how we get Koch brothers-funded conservative tea partiers into office.

The next thing we can do is educate ourselves and our children. Education isn't something that simply stops when we graduate from school. It is a never-ending process and as our economy changes from more industrial to technological, it is crucial for us to be open to learning new processes either on the job or in school.

And for our youth, STEM education is crucial. We must educate our children in science, technology, engineering and math to get ahead. Our children need to grow up to be in boardrooms and with the population becoming majority-minority in the next 10 years, it will be more important than ever to have people of color playing a role.

Finally, and most importantly, we must support each other in our endeavors. The "crab in the barrel syndrome" is real and it must stop. In the African American community we have a tendency to want to bring each other down.

What we can't forget though, is that when our friends do well we as individuals do well. When our neighbors do well, we as individuals do well. We must bring each other up and have each other's backs.

Are we in the same place we were in 1964 in terms of race relations, absolutely not. But do we still have a long road ahead of us? A long road to equality? Yes. I hope readers will do everything you can to make it to the polls, educate yourselves and your children, and support your neighbors.