Diversity: a powerful catalyst behind the civil rights movement

Black history month is a time to reflect on the contributions of black Americans to our country beyond slavery. And it’s fitting that we take a full month to highlight and discuss the history and influence of black people in America because black history has been ignored, or marginalized at best, in our mainstream narrative.

As I reflect on the contributions of African-Americans to this great experiment called the United States, I am struck by how diverse our history is, not only racially but in business, art, poetry, music, science, inventions, education, war and diplomacy. The power of diversity, of course, was extremely important to the most recognizable period in black history — the civil rights movement.

“The power of diversity, of course, was extremely important to the most recognizable period in black history — the civil rights movement.”

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s would not have been successful if its courageous leaders had not embraced diversity. They needed the help of other powerful segments of our society; white Christians, Jews, women and more. This mosaic of Americana boldly advanced the cause for everyone by being physically present, vocally supportive, and willing to publicly shame those who remained silent. There was diversity in the outrage over watching so many fellow citizens being oppressed and denied their basic human rights.

Live up to the promise

Very few accomplish great things on their own. We all receive help at points throughout our lives. Diversity was the help that propelled the civil rights movement to success. Though depicted as a mostly black American movement, it was actually a tapestry that included: Hispanics, Latinos, Asians, women, whites, blacks, Jews, gays and many more. Above all, the civil rights movement was a calling of minorities of all kind, to America, to live up to the promise of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

What did all of this mean to me? I saw the movement’s success as a new beginning, in large part because I was “woke” to the harsh realities of the world from a very young age. I knew about racism, prejudice and the pain people lived in because of discrimination and lack of access to education, jobs, mobility and opportunity. So to me this was a time of optimism. I saw my generation for what the new future could be—a future in which we would live in harmony, color blind, accepting each other for the content of our character and not the color of our skin.

There is still much work to do

I still have hope in my heart for our nation and especially for the next generation. We have come a long way, but there is still much work to do to create the equitable society laid out in the vison of the Founding Fathers.

That’s why I say we all must remember that diversity is what makes us strong. We all have the power to work in our small corner of the world to embrace this fundamental notion and encourage others to understand and embrace it as well. For when we help the people around us be happy, we help ourselves be happy; thus creating an environment that is positive, nurturing and accepting of others.

You see, friendships and relationships cannot be forced. Only when they are nurtured can we see one another as individuals that have value and worth to our community, which is also value and worth to ourselves.

As I’ve moved through this world I have experienced the dream, the optimism and the pleasure of coexisting peacefully and respectfully. So many people of all races, religions, ages and ethnicities have touched my life for the better and helped me become who I am.

I would not trade any of those experiences for anything. I learned a lot from embracing and understanding the power of diversity.

It’s actually quite simple. Live each day treating others the way you want to be treated. Don’t prejudge, and always be open to learning about other cultures. Curiosity is a trait that will serve you well. I am sure you will find more commonalities than anticipated among those that you think are so different. We are, after all, far more alike than not.

Yes, we may still have a long way to go to fully achieve the dream that inspired our extraordinary civil rights leaders. I’m confident, however, that if we value each other, treat each other with dignity and respect, and learn from each other… we will arrive together at the America they envisioned.

Alan Bedingfield is Senior Associate Director, Attainment and Retention, at United Way of Greater Cleveland. He is a lifelong Clevelander who graduated from Cleveland State University and enjoyed a successful tenure in management at UPS. After serving in the Loaned Executive program, Alan decided to join United Way permanently and has focused his talents for the past 10 years on alleviating poverty and improving his community. He is also a diehard Cleveland sports fan with uncompromising optimism.


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