- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 4, 2004

This week, the Mall served as the first stop of a nationwide bus tour to recognize those who gave life to the civil-rights movement and to preserve their stories of courage and struggle. But the tour is not just about preserving the past. It’s about compelling a new generation of leaders to blaze their own path to advance equality and justice.

The bus tour will span 70 days and travel through 35 cities. It’s no coincidence that we have launched this effort in 2004, a year in which we are commemorating two pivotal anniversaries in the history of the civil-rights movement: the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These singular events respectively struck down government-sanctioned segregation and effectively outlawed discrimination against black Americans, Hispanics, women and others.

The movement sparked by the Brown decision mobilized a generation to support enactment of the 1964 Act and involved thousands of ordinary citizens. While most Americans are familiar with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez and Bella Abzug, the stories of those who rode the buses, sat at the lunch counters and marched in the streets are hardly known, remembered or recorded.

To capture these memories, AARP, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Library of Congress joined together and created the Voices of Civil Rights project. To date, more than 2,000 firsthand accounts of the civil-rights struggle have been collected. But thousands more, vivid only in the minds and hearts of individuals who were there, have yet to be told. To reach them, we have taken to the road in a modern-day Freedom Bus, closely tracking the route of the 1961 Freedom Riders.

While we may be using traditional means of transportation, we have the benefit of modern technology to ease the task of collecting thousands of stories and sharing them in real time. The collection, which will be digitized and housed at the Library of Congress, will be freely accessible to researchers and the public alike. Whether a student toiling on a school project, a researcher tracking material for a new book or just a curious child, the voices of the civil-rights past will be but a click away.

For generations to come, the Voices of Civil Rights project will serve as a testament to the perseverance of citizens from all walks of life who took a stand and altered the landscape of America. What greater tribute is there than to remind today’s generation of the sacrifices of those who came before, to instill in them an understanding of the magnitude of what has yet to be achieved and to motivate them to meet new challenges?

And the challenges are many. The civil-rights movement is far from over.

The recent introduction in Congress of the Civil Rights Act of 2004 is the latest example of an ongoing effort to protect further the rights of individuals from discrimination based on age, gender, race, national origin, sexual orientation or disability. Whether in our neighborhoods, schools, workplaces or government offices, the struggle for equality and justice continues.

Despite decades of civil-rights activism, we have yet to eliminate many barriers to equal opportunity. While the concept of collecting and sharing memories won’t right those wrongs, in its own way it demonstrates the importance of working for positive social change.

The fact is, America succeeds when its citizens have an equal opportunity to own homes in safe and stable communities, obtain quality education, access affordable health care, hold decent-paying jobs and receive fair treatment from their government. By harnessing the knowledge and inspiration gained in the last century, the nation will be poised to make new strides where civil rights are concerned — never to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Wade Henderson is executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. William Novelli is CEO of AARP.

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