‘We Have Not Come This Far Alone’

On the occassion of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, the Harvard historian marks how far the distance we've come--and the lengths left to go

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This essay was first published in Called to Be Free: How the Civil Rights Movement Created a New Nation, from TIME Books.

As I sat on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial last August listening to my hero, Congressman John Lewis, commemorate the anniversary of the March on Washington, I found myself reflecting on the long sweep of historical events that made this particular historical event possible. It suddenly dawned on me that the long glassy pool at my back was designed to encourage this kind of reflection, functioning as a sort of double entendre, reflection both literal and figurative. I was struck by the diversity of the faces that surrounded me, attesting to the fact that “The March,” as we all called it, had been 50 years ago, and continued today to be appreciated as a truly American story by a rising generation drinking in the hard-earned wisdom of the original march’s last surviving speaker, a survivor with the scars of the movement’s climactic struggles still visible in his face. As I listened, I thought not only about the transformative events of 50 years ago, a time when I was not quite 13, but of the entire 500-year sweep of history that has defined the African American experience. And what an epic history it is: one that has crossed many rivers, from the first free black man, a conquistador, to arrive in Florida in 1513, through the long-dark centuries of enslavement; from a bloody civil war to the jubilee of emancipation; from the birth of Jim Crow segregation in the 1890s to the deliverance of the civil rights movement; from the most insidious Supreme Court decisions throughout the 19th century, to the swearing in, by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, of our first black president for the second time, and whose raised hand, beneath the Statue of Freedom, called to mind the irony of the fact that a slave’s hands had cast that statue to crown the Capitol dome 150 years before.

Like Dr. King’s last-minute decision to tell the marchers of 1963 about his “Dream” (thanks to the exhortations of Mahalia Jackson at his back), this longer journey of ours has been marked by countless improvisational acts born of a human desire to transcend all-too-human repressive practices. Out of the most painful circumstances, a people and a culture have revolutionized the nation by narrowing the yawning gap between its revolutionary ideals and its laws. As Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Black History Week, told us almost a century ago, “the accounts of the successful strivings of Negroes for enlightenment under most adverse circumstances read like beautiful romances of a people in an heroic age.” Aspiration, agitation, activism: these have always been the hallmarks of our “romance,” unexpectedly unfolding across time with all of the drama that underscores the most classic of sagas.

What else could have propelled Juan Garrido, the conquistador, to become the first black explorer to cross the Atlantic Ocean looking for the Fountain of Youth in 1513, as an equal along with Ponce de Leon? What else can explain why generations of slaves, possessed with nothing more than the most fundamental human desires—the right to live free and earn a living freely—risked all to escape to all-black settlements, as early as the late 17th century in a remote outpost of northern Florida, and eventually as far north as Canada? Or why they revolted against their masters—sometimes violently, more often with subtlety—and their descendants, once free, migrated in great waves up and out of the South seeking jobs?

“Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!”—that’s what the former slave and black abolitionist Frederick Douglass had urged those coming up behind him to do, and from the beginning of their days of despair in this country, they did just that, agitating for their rights by launching newspapers, penning slave narratives, building churches and schools, and fighting for their country in every one of its wars even when that country was unwilling to recognize them as citizens, or even as men. Of course, all three of these elements animated the planners of that game-changing march in August 1963, galvanizing men and women, young and old, black and white, to teach the world the power of nonviolent protest by demanding justice inside court and legislative chambers while risking the greatest of injustices to themselves and their families in the streets—from tree limbs, from lampposts, in church basements and atop bridges and hotel balconies.

No one understood this history better than the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself. In the metaphor he shared at the Lincoln Memorial—of the check returned and marked “insufficient funds” a century after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation—he was reminding us all that as much as the African American people needed the nation to safeguard their rights, for centuries the nation had benefited from their uncompensated toil. And the country profited, I might add, from the genius of their creations fusing European cultural forms with African cultural forms to create a truly American culture, exportable to the world—from the spirituals to the blues, from ragtime to jazz, from rhythm and blues and soul to hip-hop.

Each of these reflections, and more, were dancing within me while I listened to John Lewis speak at the Lincoln Memorial last August. I remembered what it was like to watch the original on (black-and-white) TV with my parents in our living room back in Piedmont, W. Va., and was delighted to be standing there in person 50 years on with my friend Glenn Hutchins and his mother, Marguerite, who had attended the first March on Washington and asked her son to bring her to the commemoration, in a wheelchair, as her 93rd birthday present. I was proud, exceedingly proud, of all that we have achieved since 1963 through advances in higher education enabled by affirmative action, through the flowering of our black professional ranks and the quadrupling of the black upper middle class since King’s death in 1968. At the same time, I, like many around me, was ever more conscious of the “unfinished work” of our story, to borrow from President Lincoln, much of which can be summed up in a single word—inequality—which has persisted, even worsened, in recent years. The explosive growth in the black upper middle class has been offset by the large percentage of the poorest among us—the chronically poor—still trapped in child poverty, being “mis-educated,” as Woodson famously put it, in underfunded, dangerous, crumbling schools, disproportionately represented in overcrowded prisons and blighted inner cities—inequalities as close to King’s heart as dismantling legal segregation was.

Fifty years after the march, 150 years after emancipation and 500 years since that first black conquistador set foot in the New World, there is no doubt that much work remains to be done if we are to fulfill the promise of America for all of its citizens, including the sons and daughters of the slaves. As I sat next to Glenn and Miss Marguerite, one of the few living veterans of both marches, it occurred to me that the speakers on the platform at the first march, and the hundreds of thousands of citizens surrounding the reflecting pool who composed their marching, triumphant audience, had been motivated by one common goal: the unshakable determination to teach America to dream again, to dream the dream of freedom upon which this great country of ours was founded, to make real its revolutionary ideals, so that they can be embraced by each of its citizens, regardless of race, gender, creed, national origin or class. After all, that was the promise that America held out to the world’s nations, the fulfillment of the aspirations of millennia of the world’s great civilizations. And so I close with two of my favorite lines from the black tradition: “We’ve come this far by faith” and “We have not come this far alone.” May these words continue to guide us for the next 50—indeed, the next 500—years.

Called to Be Free: How the Civil Rights Movement Created a New Nation, from TIME Books, is available now wherever books are sold.