In my time as an organizer, I have been guided by the words of many people— activists and authors, colleagues and friends. But the most powerful lesson I ever received about the struggle for civil and human rights came in 1993, when my grandmother taught me that history could move in two directions at once.
I was in college, celebrating a friend’s 21st birthday. A round of toasts went up. One friend raised his glass to honor the memory of all those we knew who had been killed or sent to prison before they reached the age of 21. Another friend lifted his cup to toast to the fact that one more of us had lived long enough to reach the quintessential age of adulthood.
I could not raise my glass on that last toast. In fact, it felt as if the motion cut me like a knife.
The notion that a man of any race, of any age, in the world’s greatest and wealthiest democracy, could think it an accomplishment to simply breathe past the age of 21— it cut me to the core.
After so many historic civil rights victories, how could it be that my generation had grown up just in time to find itself the most murdered generation in the country and the most incarcerated generation on the planet?
So I did what I always did when I am stuck. I went to my grandmother’s table and I laid my burdens down.
I said, “Grandma, you told me that my generation was supposed to be the first generation to be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character. Not because of what we are or where we come from— but because of who we are and where we are headed. What happened?”
My grandma got real quiet. She looked at me with sad eyes and then she said, “Son, it’s sad but it’s simple. We got what we fought for, but we lost what we had.” Those are wise words to remember in times like this.
We got the right to be police officers, but we lost the right to live in safe communities. In Chicago, a culture of poverty-fueled gang violence has reinforced the notion that living until 21 is an accomplishment.
We got the right to send our children to any school, but we lost the right to assume that they would receive a good education at whatever school they attend. In Philadelphia, the school system is facing a $300 million budget gap that already delayed the start of the school year and threatens to devastate support staff at schools in the most underserved communities.
We got the right to live in any community but we lost the right to know that our children would be protected by the police or the community watch volunteers, who are supposed to serve them. In 2011, before New York City passed a racial profiling ban with teeth, the New York Police Department made more stops of young black men between the ages of 14 and 24 than there were young black men between 14 and 24 in the city.
In her simple way, my grandmother spoke volumes about our history and issued a subtle admonition for the path forward. She reminded me that we must be clear about both what we are fighting for, and how we will protect what we already have.
What are we fighting for? First and foremost, we are fighting for our children: for their futures to be robust, their equality to be affirmed and their lives to be protected. That is why the civil rights community lifts up education over incarceration, and economic liberation over discrimination.
What do we need to protect? If each of us has anything— even those of us who don’t have a house, or a car, or a family to feed, or any earthly possessions at all— as soon as we turn 18, we have the right to vote. This is the right that has been won and expanded through the American Revolution, Civil War, the women’s suffrage movement and the civil rights movement because we have always understood that we are ultimately rendered defenseless when our access to the ballot box is diminished. So while voting rights may not be the most important issue to any one of us, it needs to be the most important fight for all of us.
My grandma’s words have guided me over the years and they will continue to guide me throughout my career. We should heed her important reminder that history can, and often does, move in two directions at once.
Benjamin Todd Jealous is the president and CEO of the national NAACP. This column was first published in USA TODAY.