The drama of the presidential election may overshadow a different historic achievement and reason for celebration: It’s the first time that the vice president-elect of the United States of America is a woman. And a woman of color.
We didn’t get here by accident. We got here by the sacrifices and efforts and persistence of those who came before us.
This legacy is brilliantly exemplified by an imagined graphic of Kamala Harris striding forward powerfully, casting a shadow of one of her historical precursors: Ruby Bridges.
I think many of us feel this (inspiring image by @briagoeller and @goodtrubble) pic.twitter.com/fP07YJ59aR— Jennifer Yokoyama (@YokoyamaLabUCSF) November 7, 2020
Ruby Bridges was the 6-year-old Black schoolgirl who desegregated the then all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans on Nov. 14, 1960. She’s the one famously depicted in Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting, “The Problem We All Live With,” walking resolutely to school — surrounded by four U.S. marshals necessary to ensure her safety. The problem, of course, was systemic racism. It’s a problem we all still live with today.
Bridges' story, as paraphrased from Wikipedia:
Every morning, as Bridges walked to school, one woman would threaten to poison her. Another held up a black baby doll in a coffin.
Her father lost his job as a gas station attendant. The local grocery store wouldn’t let her family shop there any more. Her grandparents, sharecroppers in Mississippi, were kicked off their land.
Some readers here might not easily recognize the visual allusion to Bridges in Harris' shadow, or fully know Bridges' history. Some readers here weren’t born yet.
But President Donald Trump was. President-elect Joe Biden was. This is not ancient history. Much has changed. But too much hasn’t.
These are events that happened also in the lifetime of U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, lifelong member of a church that long banned Blacks from its temples in much the same way that New Orleans banned Black children from white schools.
Despite notable other progress, neither Romney nor the governing First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has ever formally and explicitly disavowed their segregationist practices as wrong for their time. Instead, both Romney and then-Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley refused to do so, even decades later.
These are events that happened in the lifetime of many Utahns who just voted for Trump, who still wish that Trump had been reelected, who still think this kind of segregation is what made America great, who still want to see America revert to at least nominal white supremacy.
And so I say to all Utahns of goodwill, to all Americans of goodwill, to all people of goodwill who champion equity and inclusion — When you think it’s just all too much? When you want to give up, because America is still just too racist, too sexist, too anti-LGBTQ, too xenophobic, too bigoted, too ... Trumpian? When you just want to sign off, and let whatever may happen, happen?
I say: Don’t. You. Dare.
Others have fought too long, too hard, too successfully, to allow backsliding now, simply because today’s America may seem too much to face. Discouragement is real. Exhaustion is real. The need for rest and respite is real. But so too is courage. Even when it’s vicarious courage.
Others have faced worse. And overcome. So, too, can we. Resist. Insist. Persist. Today is a day we begin to make America even greater — by moving it forward, not backward.
As Kamala Harris' mother told her: “You may be the first to do many things, but make sure you are not the last.”
We owe a huge debt to those who have come before us. Pay it forward.
Gregory A. Clark is a Utahn who looks forward to the day we have a Black female president of the United States.