Written by Abelard Lormond
Note: This VolunteerMatch Young Ambassador Series post is written by Abelard Lormond. The Ambassador series blogs offer practical insights into causes and volunteer opportunities championed by VolunteerMatch or members of our partner network, to provide personal insight and shine a light on the unique work of our nonprofit partners.
Throughout the years, and even today, many people have displayed their acknowledgement for the unique injustices faced by African-Americans and sought to create a more equitable society for all. Some have taken physical action, while others have used the power of their words. Today, we take a look at some empowering quotes from 10 of these inspirational, quotable people.
“You can't hold a man down without staying down with him.” - Booker T. Washington
Getty Images/ Interim Archives
This quote is so powerful for the simple fact that it is one that can still be applied today, and is a good reminder on where to focus our energy if we want to create positive social change. Many people believe that they can lambaste someone for who they are and try to make them feel lesser for what they are trying to accomplish. For example, back then, African-Americans were fighting for their civil rights while having to deal with the scrutiny and heavy fire from opposing believers. Those who were against them were taking the time out of their days to worry about what Blacks were fighting for. Instead, they could have been doing something productive such as focusing on their jobs or their families. Maybe they could’ve even been helping those facing injustice down instead! Even today, those who waste their time trying to bring you down are really hurting themselves in the end.
“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” - Shirley Chisholm
Historical/Corbis via Getty Images
Shirley Chisholm was the first African-American woman to be elected to congress. Her zeal and her tenacity allowed her to gain said position. She then went on to inspire those around her and future generations with her words. One of my personal favorite quotes from her is the one above. This quote -- on the surface -- is one about not giving up and enduring. Ms. Chisholm reminds us: don’t let those who are supposedly superior to you strip away any hopes that you have or your zeal to go after what you desire. If they won’t listen or they don’t take you seriously, make them listen. Show them just how serious you are.
“Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations.” - Dr. Mae Jemison
NASA, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons
The beautiful thing about this quote is the fact that it was said by the first ever African-American woman to become an astronaut. Many children dream about going to space when they get older, but only a few will accomplish this dream. This quote highlights a major reason why this may be true: we often feel weighed down by what others think and by the stigma that the world and society puts on certain things. There have always been certain things that people view as unorthodox or out of ordinary. Before going into space, Dr. Jemison most likely had many opposers who told her that a Black woman going to space was not something that has ever happened or will ever happen. However, she remained steadfast and accomplished her goal while leaving us with an inspirational treasure through her words.
“Instead of inheriting a broken system, we have the power to change it.” - Yara Shahidi
One example of a modern day hero is Yara Shahidi. Shahidi is an African-American actress who does not only spend her time rehearsing lines for her next part, but also thinks about the social injustices that African-Americans face. If we take a closer look at her quote, we quickly notice that she fully acknowledges that even though we live in a time where racism is less of a problem than it was in history, the system is still severely flawed and there is still much change that needs to happen. She is encouraging us all to be the ones to go and make a change.
“I had no idea that history was being made. I was just tired of giving up.” - Rosa Parks
Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries
This quote by American activist Rosa Parks shows us that in doing what she did by deciding not to get up and go sit in the back of the bus, she was simply standing up for what she felt was right. Parks is not the only person who has done something that has gone down in history simply because the person was doing the right thing. Today, we are thankful for such actions, as they give us the strength and encouragement to move forward and as Parks stated, not give up.
“It is very, very important that we… make this as peaceful as possible… they want us to mess up. They want us to be disorganized.” - John Boyega
Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic via Getty Images
Another modern day inspiration is actor John Boyega. He spoke these words during a speech at Hyde Park on June 3, 2020, during a protest honoring George Floyd. Boyega was very upset about the George Floyd situation, but, while anger and frustration were dominant emotions during many of the protests, Boyega set an example by expressing the need for peace and sharing how vital it is to avoid violence at all costs. To become violent would be to become just like those we protest against. Violence just invokes more violence, but maintaining a calm, peaceful demeanor, allows you to get your message across and hopefully make a change.
“I know what it feels like when somebody is racist toward you and you literally go to a sunken place, you can’t speak.” - Keke Palmer
Caitlin Cronenberg for Variety
Like John Boyega, actress Keke Palmer was outraged by the killing of George Floyd. She walked with groups of protesters and even asked the national guard to walk with them rather than just taking a knee. Palmer’s words bring up a deep truth: standing up is often easier said than done. While many of our other inspirational heroes remind us of the importance of not giving up and speaking your truth to oppose what is not right, Palmer’s quote highlights that when you are in the position of being discriminated against based on your race, “you can’t speak.” It’s hard to take action. It’s not easy to speak up when you know what exactly it is that you’re going up against. While it is true that taking action is not the only way to yield results, it’s important to note that doing so is seldom easy.
“We are all one - and if we don’t know it, we’ll learn it the hard way.” - Bayard Rustin
U.S. News & World Report, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; photo, Warren K. Leffler
Bayard Rustin was a mentor to Dr. King, as well as a ghostwriter and proofreader. Rustin was also the chief organizer for the March on Washington. During the March, King delivered his notable “I Have a Dream” speech. The speech given by the civil rights activist works in tandem with Rustin’s quote: both speak of the need for a united nation; a united community. Rustin’s words also remind us of the fact that those who are oblivious to our unity will not find out by means of sweet talk. They will find out “the hard way”. That phrase could refer to a number of events, from riots, to chaotic protests, and even war, and speaks to the need to work together toward harmony. When one of us is suffering, all of us suffer.
“One person plus one typewriter constitutes a movement.” - Pauli Murray
Pauli Murray is the first African-American to earn a Doctor of Juridical Science degree from Yale. Before attending Yale, Ms. Murray wrote a book entitled, “States’ Laws on Race and Colors.” Her role as an author helps us see why she would make a statement that highlights the power of a typewriter -- she knew the power of a thinking person putting words to paper. Many of us are familiar with a similar statement, by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton nearly 100 years before, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Both authors illustrate the fact that letting your voice be heard is more effective than resorting to acts of violence and that just one committed person has the power to change history forever.
“I just couldn’t move. History had me glued to the seat.” - Claudette Colvin
The final quote is from Claudette Colvin. Colvin was the first person to get arrested for refusing to give up her seat in the ‘whites only’ section on a public bus. Colvin’s action, as she stated, was due to the fact that she knew that by sitting in that seat, many people would later be able to follow in her footsteps. The major reason why Colvin is not as well known as Rosa Parks is due to the fact that she was very “mouthy” and disrespectful about not giving up her seat, unlike Parks who was more calm and collected about it.
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