En español | From the moment the first abducted Africans found themselves enslaved and oppressed on America's shores, freedom became their singular ambition. And through the centuries, for their children and their children's children, that most human desire remained constant and basic: They demanded freedom from bondage and the atrocities of rape, beatings and family separations. Freedom from lynching and political disenfranchisement. Freedom from segregation, redlining, police brutality, discrimination. Freedom, finally, from all the effects of racial hatred, which has long distorted our nation's democratic ideals.
Over the summer, the nationwide protests spurred by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery gave renewed urgency to those calls. They also underscored the grinding nature of progress, for despite the civil rights gains of previous generations, formidable work remains to be done. Yet as our history has shown, Black thinkers and activists —from the poorest of the poor to those with great power and means — have been critical in challenging America to do this work. Their voices mattered.
Their words — some reflected here — express deep outrage and suffering but also tremendous love and hope for their community and their country. Some of their calls for justice have been answered through legislation or litigation; other demands remain painfully timely. Together, they offer a powerful opportunity to honor the past while working together to create a better, more just future for all.
Activists on the Right-to-Vote
I am for the “immediate, unconditional, and universal” enfranchisement of the black man, in every State in the Union. Without this, his liberty is a mockery; without this, you might as well almost retain the old name of slavery for his condition.
—Frederick Douglass, former enslaved person, abolitionist, author, activist
The struggle continues. After the 15th Amendment recognized the African American right to vote in 1870, some states responded by using violent intimidation, poll taxes and literacy tests as barriers to voting. Today those laws have mutated into voter suppression efforts that target low income and minority communities with disheartening effectiveness. I fight for the real enfranchisement of black people.
—Eric Holder Jr., former U.S. attorney general
Activists on Racism
The function of racism ... is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. … None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.
—Toni Morrison, novelist
Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others. Black America ever lives under that skeptical eye.
—Ta-Nehisi Coates, essayist, novelist
Activists on Justice
Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother's son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.
—Ella Baker, civil rights activist
Every police killing of an un-armed black man, woman or child damages our country. ... These killings are a tragedy for families and communities. But they are also a stain on our nation's very soul.
—Sherrilyn Ifill, president, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund