By Ben Jealous
February is Black History Month – and Black people just made a whole lot of history. Joe Biden is our president and Donald Trump is not because Black organizers and voters decided that they would not be denied their right as American citizens to be heard at the ballot box.
Kamala Harris is our history-making vice president, a Black and Southeast Asian woman and the daughter of immigrants, thanks to the millions of Black people who encouraged family, friends, and neighbors to vote.
Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are senators because Black people and their allies in Georgia turned out in November, and again in January, to signal a new day in the heart of the Old South.
All this makes me grateful that Black History Month comes in February. It encourages us to think about those who made these historic moments possible. I’m thinking about the freedom fighters and voting rights activists – and the courageous ordinary people whose names don’t show up in history books, but who showed up to fight against injustice. They often faced violence and brutality that was fueled by the racist power structure’s desire to maintain power at all costs.
Does that sound familiar? Just a few weeks ago, we saw our democracy challenged by that same kind of poison. We watched a president incite his supporters to violence by denying the legitimacy of Black people’s votes. The rage among Trump’s followers was stoked by endless repetitions of the lie that so-called real Americans had reelected him in a landslide, and that the election was stolen from them by corrupt big-city machines—read Black officials and voters—and their communist allies.
Black History Month is a good time to remember that Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement he led were also smeared as communists out to destroy America.
And you don’t have to be a historian to have noticed the Confederate flags and the lynching noose brought to the Capitol on January 6 by the mob that claimed they were taking back the election and the country.
In 2013, conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, which has long been considered the crown jewel of the civil rights movement.
Immediately, state legislators, especially in the old Confederate states, took advantage of the federal government’s forced retreat from justice. They passed all kinds of new restrictions on voting. People in the civil rights and voting rights movements did not give up in despair after that devastating setback. They knew that every bit of progress is met with resistance. And the greater the progress, the greater the backlash.
Right-wing politicians are already responding to Black voters’ turnout and the victories they made possible by preparing new plans to restrict voting. Some Pennsylvania Republicans who were supporters of voting by mail just a couple years ago are now trying to end it. We must defeat these efforts.
As we welcome the Biden-Harris administration and encourage them to govern boldly to advance equality, justice, and opportunity, I think back to 2009, when Barack Obama made history as our first Black president. That year, I participated in a Story Corps conversation with my mother and grandmother about their own histories of civil rights activism. My grandmother—who is still with us today at age 104—sent me off with a message that is just as true today: “There’s a lot left to be done.”
There are many ways to think about the stubborn resistance to the full inclusion of Black people in this country. Right now, I want to focus on this: The civil rights movement’s victories were especially amazing given the intensity of the opposition. Our recent election wins are even more impressive when you consider that they were won in the face of powerful political forces working to make it harder for people to vote.
Our optimism and hope are grounded in our history of overcoming.
Ben Jealous serves as president of People For the American Way and People For the American Way Foundation. Jealous has decades of experience as a leader, coalition builder, campaigner for social justice and seasoned nonprofit executive. In 2008, he was chosen as the youngest-ever president and CEO of the NAACP. He is a graduate of Columbia University and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and he has taught at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania.