Through the lens of justice and dignity, the last 10 days have been as incredible as any comparable period in America’s last half century. We began this time frame with the horrific shootings of African Americans at Emmanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston, South Carolina, and it culminates with a landmark civil rights decision by the Supreme Court that upholds marriage equality.
And yes, the two events are connected. Both the Charleston killings and the Marriage Equality triumph reflect polar ends of the continuum in the fight for human dignity, equality, and social justice. It begins with hatred, marginalization, stigmatization, and oppression of a certain group — blacks or gays or immigrants, for example — which catalyzes the energy, passion, and fight to right the wrong, and speak truth to power. And while the fight for dignity and equality can take years and decades, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us that the arc of the universe “bends towards justice.”
In between the Charleston killings and Friday’s Supreme Court decision, we have also seen the Court uphold the integrity of Obamacare/the Affordable Care Act, and fair housing for all. Additionally, our state of California approved health coverage for undocumented immigrant children, and we have also witnessed the sight of Confederate Flags coming down from statehouses in the South.
This was not just some “lucky week” for justice. Each and every one of these developments — health care for all, marriage equality and equal rights, fair housing, symbols of racism — boast years and decades of advocacy by grassroots and community heroes in the battle for justice. In the African-American church, there is an oft-used phrase that is found in the Bible’s Book of Timothy: It’s about the importance of “fighting the good fight” on earth, but with eternal value beyond our living years. Battles for justice and equality are “good fights” — they have systemic, multi-generational impact. When Rosa Parks stands tall by sitting down on a Birmingham bus in 1955, it is connected to President Obama’s historic election a half-century later.
On a far more modest level, all of this explains why we, at The California Endowment, embrace the funding of advocacy to pursue our health mission. Inequality and lack of opportunity can create and exacerbate poor health, and so we commit a sizable portion of our grant making to those who take a community-engaged, “systems” approach to health improvement. Poor health is concentrated in groups and populations who are ignored or marginalized by public policies and systems: communities of color, LGBT, immigrants, the incarcerated, and others. So we support the grassroots and advocacy organizations who “fight the good fight” for health, but through the lens of justice and dignity for all.
Gandhi proffered the best “theory of change” for social justice: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, — and then, you win.” The victorious Supreme Court decisions remind us of why we fight. The killings at Emmanuel A.M.E. church remind us that we cannot stop.
This commentary originally appeared in the Huffington Post.