Advice to young activists from a 101-year-old historian

These last months have been a stressful and difficult time in the history of our country. I say that with some experience behind me. I’m 101 years old.

I was born during the 1918 influenza pandemic. My grandparents were born slaves. My parents were sharecroppers in Alabama before moving to Chicago when I was 3 years old.

I fought Nazis in Europe during World War II, and I organized the Chicago delegation to Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington as the civil rights movement took wings.

The murder of George Floyd was shocking in its cruelty, but the circumstances were all too familiar. I’m so proud of the millions of young people across the country, who (many for the first time) marched in protest and dedicated themselves to advancing the project of social and racial justice.

In a way, this moment is a passing of the torch to a new generation of activists, all wanting to take action, to make a difference.

2020 census matters

So, I have some advice for the new generation of activists for equality. In addition to organizing, voting, demonstrating and rattling the gates of power, we must not neglect a quieter action that is an important part of making our voice is heard – being counted in the 2020 U.S. census.

Most understand the importance of voting, although too few actually exercise this important right. But I don’t get the sense that everyone understands how important being counted is to the cause of equal rights and racial justice.

It’s important because the data collected from the census is used to distribute billions of dollars in federal economic resources. It’s important because census data is used to define districts of elected representatives.

But beyond all that, it’s important because you matter, your presence in our society matters and you should be officially recorded for all time.

Pushing civil rights

I recently had the opportunity to see the official ledger of my family from the 1930 U.S. census when I was just 11. It was moving to see each of my family members listed next to each other.

The census was once used as a tool to uphold racial discrimination policies. Now, census data helps fight racial injustice by comparing representations in the population as a whole to representations in jobs, education and financial opportunities.

This is key to finding out where civil rights laws are not being followed and enforced. But even though the census data is an important tool, it is still undercounting African Americans in each census — including by more than 800,000 undercounts in the 2010 census.

Being counted matters

It is estimated that Black children were undercounted by 7% in the previous census 10 years ago, twice the rate of White children.

As someone who has seen both the pain and the progress in the struggle for equal justice, I implore everyone to fill out the 2020 census.

It’s not some bureaucratic form. It’s part of history — the history of you and the history of our nation. You deserve to be counted. You need to be counted. Take action today to make sure you are counted.

Timuel Black is a Chicago educator, author and civil rights advocate.

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