February 28, 2017 6:11 pm

Living history in real time

Ed Yohnka, Communications and Public Policy Director

Ed Yohnka, Communications and Public Policy Director

There is something about history – we only see it being made after the fact. When reflecting on years of progress, we can take for granted that (as the adage goes) it always arced toward justice. We can skim over the bloody violence of lynching and the march at Selma, only to see Martin Luther King Jr. standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial delivering his famous words of unity. We can jump over the generations of discrimination against gay men and lesbians, including the use of rough police tactics at gay bars, and see only the happy scenes on the steps of the Supreme Court after the freedom to marry for gay and lesbian couples was affirmed by the Court.

The reality is that history is always happening, and it is happening right now.

Last week I spent a day engaged in one of my favorite activities on behalf of the ACLU – speaking to high school students about the Constitution and civil liberties. This particular school stuck out for me: it is part of a school district that recently made headlines for addressing the question of how we provide dignity and recognize the humanity of transgender students across the district. In a sad coincidence, my visit took place on the very day the Trump administration withdrew the guidance on protecting transgender student’s use of restroom and locker rooms that conforms to their gender identity in public schools. While the removal of the guidance does nothing to affect school’s existing policies or change state and federal laws, it sends a strong message from the administration of endorsing discrimination towards transgender students.

I thought about what it must feel like for those students to be sent the message of callous disregard and isolation from the administration. But as I walked the halls of this particular school it was clear that they weren’t the only ones impacted by the policy proposals being advanced by the White House. Those hallways were filled with Muslims, sons and daughters of undocumented immigrants, young people of color who have been targeted by police misconduct, and young women who will need to access reproductive health care during their lifetimes. Yet, these students weren’t focused on these factors that divide us or the legal battles surrounding them; they just want others to be treated fairly.

Throughout the course of the day, I discussed a number of issues with the students. Coming from me, one fears that these lessons appear too much like folklore of days past, rather than current events. But what I hope these students understand is that these lessons are not just history – that what is happening today is part of that fight for progress in civil liberties and civil rights.

In classes we talked about free speech rights. But as we have seen recently first amendment rights of speech and of the press can’t be taken for granted. We talked about the courage of Rosa Parks who pushed to end discrimination based off of the physical differences that divide us; yet today we fight battles over restrooms and locker rooms instead of lunch counters. We talked about the Constitutional provisions on search and seizure, even as Muslim citizens are having their phones searched at airports.

We are all living the history lessons in their books. The battles being fought today in the courts and legislature will soon fill those pages. And it’s up to all of us to make sure that history progresses towards fairness and justice.

This underscores how important, how critical, it is for each of us to stand up and join the fight for American values that is currently underway. We all must stand in solidarity – even if, and especially when, these issues do not impact us directly.

The message of unity is spreading.  People are joining demonstrations and standing up to elected officials to address these issues – they are doing what they can to make their voices heard.  We cannot ignore what is happening.  That each of us, right now, are part of a history that we will shape. All of us are part of real civil right battles that must be won. This is our moment. It’s happening now. And we must not be complacent.