As I reflect on transformative moments in my life, I remember being a college student and reading a letter by a prisoner in a Birmingham jail. I recall the moment in my consciousness as I began to read the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.” As someone who always aspired to be a public servant, I took those words to heart, and they guide my work from the streets of Springfield to the halls of Congress.
Today, we find ourselves at another transformative moment, one that I acknowledge in the context of my own life but one that is transforming the history of our country and is impossible to miss as it occurs along almost every Main Street across our nation.
Millions of people are marching and raising their voices for justice, peace and change. I have been proud to stand with my community, and I am thankful for the peaceful protesters who join us in solidarity and healing.
Our country right now is in mourning. Folks want to be heard and seen – and more importantly, they want the systemic disparities and injustices that exist in American to be fixed. We must do better, and I’m hopeful that as a society we will. As Dr. King reminded us many years ago, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
I remember growing up in Springfield with friends and fellow classmates of all colors and cultures, and, at the time, we understood “equity” to mean “we’ve all got nothing.” We grew up modestly. We never used the word “summer” as a verb. Springfield parks during the summer, the Boys and Girls Club during the winter.
I think about being on the ball field with my lifelong pal, Henry Thomas, who went on to become the president of the Springfield Urban League for 39 years. I remember, with pride, being a young mayor of Springfield in 1986 and divesting all city money from South Africa amid horrific unrest.
I think about the time I joined my friend John Lewis as we marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. In 1965, John was protesting peacefully for racial equality when he was beaten alongside fellow civil rights marchers.
We are who we were, from the Saturday night dances at Wesley United Methodist Church to the Catholic League basketball games with my classmates from Buckingham Junior High School, where White students were in the minority at the time. But as I reflected on the moments with pride, a greater and sharper image came in to focus. In each of these moments, the truth was that I had never walked in Henry’s or John’s shoes. Despite demonstrating a profound interest in righting these wrongs, I can never fully comprehend their experiences the way they lived them.
We are who we were, but if we fail at that very basic step – recognizing, truly and deeply, our own privilege – then we do a great disservice to the spirit of those first words penned by Dr. King in that jail cell.
Self-awareness is not a solution though. We cannot simply acknowledge generations of systemic racism and hope to do better tomorrow.
As a member of Congress, I have a duty to use my platform for actual – sometimes uncomfortable – change. My calling to public service has given me a platform, and I am not alone in feeling the pull to a greater responsibility. Retired Gen. David Patreus recently wrote in The Atlantic, urging the removal of Confederate officer names from the country’s most vital military institutions. He reflected, with honesty, on the impact of the Lost Cause nostalgia on our flawed understanding of history, and said: “The way we resolve these issues will define our national identity for this century and beyond.”
He’s correct. What we do now will be a reflection of who we are as a society and our willingness to be better, even when it’s hard and overwhelming.
In the early days of my career as the mayor of Springfield, we implemented affirmative action programs to much criticism, while in the background we watched the beginnings of a War on Drugs unfold nationally. For decades, it has been three steps forward, two steps backwards.
The protests of today look eerily familiar: 2015 in Ferguson; 1991 in Los Angeles; 1965 in Selma. Late last month, the House Ways & Means Committee held virtual hearings about economic and health disparities for people of color while the country was grappling with the gruesome killing of George Floyd. The two contrasting scenes underscore what has become painfully clear: We have not done nearly enough.
This profound national moment is a time for greater transparency and a true understanding of the “community” in “community policing.” We must challenge ourselves to have difficult conversations. We need comprehensive criminal justice and prison reform, social services designed to empower our communities, and pathways of opportunity to break generations of systemic racism.
History will remember this moment. As members of Congress, we have a sworn duty to make this country stronger and to keep its people safe. That includes a responsibility to do all we can to put an end to the senseless, hate-motivated violence that plagues our communities.
We need to lead by example, and that requires us not only to reject, but to condemn outright, hate in all of its forms. I hold myself to that same standard and join my voice to the call: America is no place for hate.
Richard E. Neal, who grew up in Springfield, represents the 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. He served as mayor of Springfield from 1983 to 1989.