What Democracy Looks Like


I talk a big talk.  I’m all about social activism, about taking a stand, fighting for what’s right.  I’ve formulated a lot of strong opinions on certain issues, opinions many of my friends and neighbors may not agree with.  This doesn’t bother me.  But, being still a teenager, I haven’t had hardly any opportunities to walk the walk.  My money has not yet been put where my mouth is, so to speak.

That is, until a few days ago.  

I visited the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, this week, and learned that April 4 is the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.  MLK was shot and killed right in Memphis, in the Lorraine Motel, which is now-fittingly-the Civil Rights Museum.  I walked through his hotel room, stood where his shooter stood.  For hours I learned about the civil rights movement of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, as well as the history of the injustices done to those of a darker skin color.

I think there is a difference between what I felt, looking at these exhibits, and what an African-American probably feels.

I hope they would feel proud.  Proud of their ancestors for standing up for the future generations, for standing tall despite the millions of voices telling them to stay down.  I know I would be-I am.

But stronger than that is a different emotion in my heart: shame. I felt such a strong shame for my own ancestors.  From slavery to the KKK, we could spend lifetimes trying to rectify the injustices we caused and never succeed.  Until the end of time, we will have to live with knowing that we were the oppressors.  We have to read our history books, we have to teach our children about the horrors of our mistakes.  It’s the hardest tea to swallow.

On the anniversary of MLK’s death, the organization Black Lives Matter held a march in Memphis, both to commemorate Dr. King and to carry on his fight for justice.  In 1968, MLK was in Memphis to fight for the rights of the sanitation workers; in 2017, they were marching for a higher minimum wage and a union.  (t’s strange that the issues never really seem to change.)  My parents and I, after spending an entire day in the museum reading about the importance of civil rights, decided to go and march.

It was very spur of the moment, and I’ll admit, I was nervous.  I had no reason to be, but I was.  I was not being oppressed, so, to an objective observer, what reason did I have to be there?  My family and I could be rejected, unwelcome in a fight that we can’t fully understand.  My subconscious reluctance caused my pace to slow as I followed my parents to the starting place of the rally.

But, being there proved me wrong.  As we walked down the street, chanting “This Is What Democracy Looks Like!”, I realized that I was at home here.  People gave us thumbs up, waiters and waitresses clapped and cheered as we walked passed.  Black or white didn’t matter, because we all were the color of freedom.

As we reached the end of the march and listened to Rev. William Barber of the North Carolina NAACP deliver a stirring message about continuing MLK’s mission, we all joined hands.  We held them in the air, a sign of solidarity.  We are stronger together.

There are still injustices in the world.  We have come a long way, but the battle is far from over.  We cannot stop now.  There is still so much work to do.  And whatever you do, choose carefully.  Whatever actions you take or do not take, be prepared to justify them to your children and your children’s children.

Be a part of building a better tomorrow.  Have the strength to love.

You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.

Malcom X

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