As we come to the end of this year’s Black History Month, we’ve seen and heard again the stories of advocates who selflessly sacrificed to open the doors of greater equality. Names we are all familiar with like Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm and Muhammad Ali. Black History Month is a dedicated time to honor these men and women, along with the many others, who we appreciate and thank year-round because of the eternal impact they made towards greater social justice.
There are two people I’ve reflected on who are lesser known individuals, but, their contributions to the Civil Rights Movement were significant. Although Diane Nash and Walter Reuther were community leaders of the 1960s, they lived their lives in a manner that should serve as an example for us to model today, in 2020, and even here in our diverse Northern New Jersey metro region.
On the surface, Nash and Reuther appear as opposites. Diane was an African-American woman from Chicago, Illinois and Walter was a first generation German-American born and raised in West Virginia. Where their stories align is that they both were committed advocates of increased racial equality despite not personally suffering from the effects of discrimination and racism. During the Civil Rights era, Diane’s hometown of Chicago didn’t feel the pangs of racial intolerance as strongly as in the Southern States. And, Walter could have easily chosen to not associate with the struggle for racial equality being that he wasn’t directly impacted by it as a White man. But, Diane and Walter chose to embody the words of Dr. King when he said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and of Benjamin Franklin when he stated “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are”. Diane became a young leader of the freedom riders, sit-ins and fought for the elimination of literacy tests when she moved to Nashville to attend college. Walter was a close ally of Dr. Martin Luther King, marching alongside him in Selma and Birmingham, and making the financial arrangements for Dr. King to be released from the Birmingham Jail as well as for the March on Washington before Dr. King’s renowned I Have a Dream speech.
Diane Nash and Walter Reuther show us that there is always a need for the involvement of those who may not directly experience inequality in order for justice to exist. Now, two of the simplest but most meaningful ways to advocate for equality and justice are (1) to ensure everyone you know is counted in the Census, and (2) to vote in all elections. Without an accurate Census count, we risk losing federal funding to our local schools, public colleges, public health needs, funding for infrastructure repairs and improvements and decreased representation in our Statehouse and Washington D.C. And, when we fail to consistently vote, we lose our opportunity to be involved in electing representatives who have committed to be a voice for the voiceless and to stand for what’s right.
Black History, American History and the Civil Rights Movement has shown us that we can’t do it alone. When we work together to take care of each other, our community is immeasurably better and stronger.
Danielle Ireland-Imhof is the Passaic County Clerk.