In April of 2018, I walked the haunted and hallowed streets of Montgomery, Alabama. I was on the ground in the cradle of the Confederacy along with 85 people from GLIDE for the opening of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. We were there with educators and activists, staff and board, old and young, to look head-on at the birth story and evolution of systemic racism in this promised, yet blood-soaked land of ours. Our days there were some of the most heartbreaking, soul-wrenching days of my life. Despite decades working amidst trauma and terror around the world, the images and stories of generations of racial terrorism in America brought me to my knees.
“Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on…I’m gonna board that big greyhound…Carry the love from town to town. Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on, hold on…” Eyes on the Prize
I kept hearing the civil rights freedom song, “Eyes on the Prize,” that anchored Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the myriad of activists and ordinary citizens who stood up and marched through Alabama for voting rights and justice. What kind of courage must it have taken to keep singing, “Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on, hold on,” as they were assaulted with billy clubs and hatred? How did they find the strength to keep marching when police unleashed attack dogs and pointed fire hoses at their children?
These days, I find myself thinking frequently about their fortitude and the power of their collective, non-violent action.
Today, as we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I cannot help but wonder at the courage and conviction he inspired in millions of people in one of the darkest periods of American history— and in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. What does it mean — today — to keep our eyes on a prize; to hold fast to his prophetic dream of a morally clear and courageous America in which systemic equality and empathy have taken root to heal our collective past and our divided present? Where everyone has a vote and a voice in our shared democracy? A dream in which we can all equally take for granted reliable systems that deliver basic human rights like housing, health care and equal treatment under the law?
We are experiencing hard times. The COVID pandemic has taken the lives of almost a million Americans, decimating families, and shining a bright light on the gross inequities that still surround us. Police and vigilante violence against people of color continues at an alarming rate. The terrifying attack on the Capitol Building by right-wing extremists was a wake-up call to an American democracy that is teetering and in need of desperate life-saving repairs.
As Dr. King stood in the vicious throes of the racist American south in the 1960s, he too faced staggering challenges. It would have been human to cave to fear, to capitulate to violence, to put his hands up and say to the naysayers, to the Klan, to the quietly racist, “You win.” And yet, King and millions of others swam upstream, endured violent attacks, stared death in the face, and painted a redemptive dream for this promised land of ours, a land whose full promise has not yet been realized.
King’s dream of an inclusive American democracy remains embattled, despite incremental progress. The challenges remain formidable. Yet, there is hope and promise, fulfilled every day by courageous people who have come after Dr. King and by a new generation called to meet the moment. Coretta Scott King said it aptly, “Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.”
In that spirit, GLIDE is here, standing at the corner of Ellis and Taylor, at the edge of the promises of Dr. King. For generations now, we’ve been a treasured home to thousands and a hub of national significance. And like Dr. King’s prophetic dream, GLIDE’s hope-filled and healing vision for our city and our country is a shared prize we seek, a prize of moral clarity and courage, of equality and equity for all with lasting change in our nation.
So we will continue to hold on, to carry the love and to keep our eyes on the prize, reminding all who come in our orbit that progress and healing are indeed possible, even in the face of insurmountable odds.
Karen J. Hanrahan
President & CEO, GLIDE