Commentary: Journey for freedom in the U.S. is far from over

A lot of important details get left out of the history of the civil rights movement.

Angela Davis shared many of them recently during the Second Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Keynote Address at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Davis, an author, 1960s radical and retired professor, said the civil rights movement originally was called the freedom movement.

"Full citizenship does not by itself accomplish everything a person needs to be free," Davis said. Having civil rights, including the right to vote, is a pre-condition for freedom.

Black History Month is a time to show that freedom is more than civil rights. Freedom includes equal opportunity, access to good health care, stellar schools and good housing without the barriers of bigotry.

"Black people are still not free," Davis said. The freedom movement, she said, was "a continuation of the 19th century campaign to end slavery."

Davis asked people to think of Civil War-era leaders. Most people name Abraham Lincoln. Some remember Frederick Douglass, a former slave and fiery abolitionist. But people often forget the work women did to end slavery and in the civil rights movement.

Those women include former slaves such as Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman and abolitionist Sojourner Truth. Women in the 20th century freedom movement included Rosa Parks and Jo Ann Robinson. Parks is credited with being the mother of the civil rights movement for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus in December 1955.

Robinson fueled the effort that followed, mimeographing thousands of flyers calling for a boycott of the buses used mostly by blacks. The women who joined her and Parks to birth the freedom movement were servants, maids, cooks, laundry women and other domestic workers. They bore the burden, but history forgets. "We have a skewed historical memory," Davis said.

King was assassinated, she said, because his vision of the freedom movement was becoming larger. He was about to launch a campaign for poor people and was pushing for economic freedom and worker freedoms. King also spoke out against Vietnam.

Davis said the freedom movement today should include people respecting all species’ right to live without industrialization forcing many of them into extinction. Freedom must include human rights for immigrants, people who’ve been in prison and lesbians and gays. Same-sex couples should be allowed to get married, and people should support them.

"Marriage is a civil right," Davis said. "Why shouldn't all people have the right to marry?

"We have to be willing to open up our minds. We have to be willing to go places for freedom. What freedom movements do is enlarge the terrain of freedom."

Davis said the movement has to continue even after the joy over the election of Barack Obama as the first black U.S. president. She explained that "all struggles were struggles against the government, struggles against the state."

She said even though people were elated that Obama was elected, they must still "organize to create a movement to put pressure on him to do the right thing" because he now oversees the established order. Criticism can be support.

The freedom movement today also must include bringing troops home from the wars, affordable health care and good public schools. Davis said many people knew that King said he had been to mountaintop.

"But he never told us what he saw on top of the mountain," she said. "He never told us what freedom really is."

She quoted former South African President Nelson Mandela, who wrote in his book, "Long Walk to Freedom": "I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended."

The journey for freedom in the U.S. also is far from over.