“The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle,” Frederick Douglass
On June 20, 1967, a young boxer was convicted in Houston, Texas, for refusing to be indicted into the U.S. Army to fight a war and a people with whom the champ said he had no quarrel. “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger,” Muhammad Ali told reporters. Ali’s logic for resisting the draft was impeccable.
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor, hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” he said at the time. “And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger; they never lynched me. They didn’t put no dogs on me; they didn’t rob me of my nationality; rape and kill my mother and father. Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
Ali understood that the U.S. war in Vietnam was wrong and decided not to fight it and in doing so, it cost him something. In fact, it cost him everything that had been dear to him, his ability to box, the fame that came with being the best in his profession, and his ability to make exorbitant sums of money from it.
Ali told audiences in which he gave anti-war and anti-racist speeches not to feel sorry for him.“I would like to say to those of the people who think that I lost so much by not taking this step, I would like to say that I did not lose a thing. I haven’t lost one thing,” he said. “I have gained a lot. Number-one, I have gained a peace of mind. I have gained a peace of heart.” Ali made a commitment, a great sacrifice, and in doing so launched the anti-Vietnam war movement that effectively—along with Viet Cong resistance—forced the mightiest nation in the world at the time to stand down.
When former NFL star Colin Kaepernick initially sat down during the playing of the national anthem, he had committed himself to bringing attention to the scourge of police violence. He was criticized, slandered, and unofficially banned from football, but he never stuttered and never took back a word that he said in defense of Black people and humanity.
WNBA star Maya Moore has sacrificed the last years of a brilliant career to fight to get a man out of prison whom she met when she was a teenager. Her persistence paid off and an innocent man, Jonathan Irons, has had his conviction overturned and will soon be set free. Moore has decided to continue fighting for others, despite the personal cost.
As young people take to the streets demanding an end to the system of policing as we know it
and demanding that the symbols and foundations of racism come down, they will be confronted
eventually with the fact that real change does not come without sacrifice and commitment. And
to change the current institution of policing and to get rid of institutional racism in this society
will ultimately mean that we will have to change the system that requires it.
If we are going to rid ourselves of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, Islamaphobia, and other harmful prejudices, we are going to have to commit to change the system that finds it necessary to use our differences to divide and thus rule us.
Consequently, those who would endeavor to take on this fight will have to make a sacrifice of time, material comfort, money, personal aspirations, and even friends.
If this embryonic effort at change is going to succeed, we will have to take a page from Moore’s book. She said upon temporarily leaving the WNBA, “I’m dedicating my life to freeing Jonathan the same way I dedicated myself to each game in the WNBA.”
Similarly, “would-be” change-agents will have to bear down and study like any other team heading into competition studies its opponent or like an army going into battle studies its enemy. They will have to organize teach-ins and virtual and in-person study groups.
Folks will have to read the Communist Manifesto, which is not about communism, but rather an explanation of the workings of the system under which we live: capitalism. They will have to read the history of struggle and learn from those who tried before like the Black Panthers and others.
Anti-police violence activists will need to fully understand the mechanisms of capitalism, and in doing so, they will learn that only this kind of social/ economic/ political system requires this kind of savage and brutal and inhumane policing. They will discover, as MLK pointed out, that the U.S. is built around the “three triplets of evil, racism, materialism, and militarism.” And they will realize that to get rid of one, they will have to eventually take on all three.
And when we come to the realization and develop the conviction needed for real change to occur, we will be confronted by the words of Douglass who explained, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will…. [Human beings] may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.”
If we are to win this fight, this struggle for humanity—and that’s what it is—this effort to reclaim our humanity and build a world consistent with humane values, it will require total commitment. It will require a deep moral conviction that comes from knowing that we are right.
History has been made by those who have made deep sacrifices; they did the right thing and
committed to doing the right thing despite the personal cost. If we are to succeed we will have to have the determination of anti-slavery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison who, once he committed to taking up the struggle against slavery, declared, “I am in earnest; I will not equivocate and I will not retreat a single inch.”