“We shall overcome…we shall overcome someday…”

These simple lyrics that originated in the hymns of hopeful slaves made their way to the pews of Southern black churches and, over time, became one of the most influential songs of the 20th century.

The promising words of “We Shall Overcome” rang out louder than the sounds of shouting policemen, barking dogs and belittling remarks. From the busloads of anxious freedom riders to the rallies of flower-wielding, anti-war hippies, the hope of someday overcoming the reign of an unjust society and creating a better world for future generations united an entire nation.

So how much has been overcome? Who now has the rights that so many sacrificed so much for in the turbulent Civil Rights Movement just 50 years ago? The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed voter discrimination and the segregation of schools and public places. It also established the commission of Equal Employment Opportunity.

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and 50 years later, for the first time in history, a black man is President of the United States of America.

The Equal Pay Act of 1963 made it against federal and state law for employers to pay women less than men for the same job. Businesses owned by women continue to grow at an exponentially faster rate than male-owned firms. According to the US Department of Labor, between 1997-2007, women-owned businesses grew by 44%, twice as fast as businesses owned by men.

There is no doubt major change has taken place on American soil over the years, but millions have been left behind in the fight for their rights in the land of the free.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals have been struggling for social and legal equality since the early 20th century. They have watched all kinds of social and racial groups be liberated in ways they could only dream of. For a fight that is more than a century old, the gay rights movement is still moving along at a snail’s pace.

According to CNN, hate crimes against homosexuals were not recognized as such until 2009 when President Obama signed a law into effect, making them a federal crime. Even still, there were 2,016 reports of violence in 2012 against LGBT people and people affected with HIV, according to a study by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.

The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)—which blocked federal recognition of same-sex marriage—was struck down this year, yet 35 states still have bans on marriage equality.

The state of Alabama does not allow same-sex couples to marry, does not recognize married homosexual couples from other jurisdictions and does not offer any other type of relationship recognition for same-sex couples. Until the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010, openly gay men and women couldn’t even serve their country in the military.

Samantha Williamson, an openly bisexual UM student, says that while we are making steps toward marriage equality and equal rights, there is still a long way to go both legally and socially.

She says that offering classes to school children on sexual orientation—just as there are classes on religion, politics and different cultures—is a necessary step toward moving forward.

“As a strong supporter of equality for the LGBT community and a firm believer that change begins with education,” said Williamson, “I have researched the topic of sexual orientation education within school systems. Education and prevention policies lessen the amount of verbal and physical violence towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered youth.”

Amanda Clay has been openly lesbian since she was 13 but has always known that something was different about her. When she came out to her parents, her father was more supportive than her mother. “My mom was really harsh towards me,” she said.

“She would tell me she didn’t want to shower after me. [She] told me once that she thought she had a girl when I was born. She didn’t know how to handle it at all,” said Clay. Their relationship has improved, however, and now her mom is much more accepting of her sexuality.

While she wasn’t directly bullied in school, she heard the whispers, and she saw the dirty stares, mostly from complete strangers.

“I was at a restaurant once, on a date, and I was ordering a drink, so I handed my license to the waitress. My picture had longer hair than what I did in person. She handed it back after a second’s glance and said ‘This is a girl’…”

Millions of people experience this type of homophobic and offensive treatment on a daily basis.

According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) 2011 National Survey, 84.9 percent of LGBT students have heard negative usages of “gay” (i.e. “that’s so gay”) frequently at school. 81.9 percent were verbally harassed, 38.3 percent were physically harassed (i.e. pushing, shoving) and 18.3 percent were physically assaulted (i.e. kicked, punched, injured with a weapon)—all due to their sexual orientation.

Also, six out of 10 LGBT students, 63.5 percent of the population, reported feeling unsafe at school because of sexual preference, and one-third of these students admitted to skipping class due to personal safety concerns.

Such statistics should not still exist in 2013. Such discrepancies in equal treatment should have been legally terminated 50 years ago. How can America pride itself on being a just, free nation of liberty when more than half of the student population is afraid to attend school because they’re constantly harassed for being “different”?

Change begins with reform-minded and educated youths. There has never been a major social change without them. Until we start referring to “gay marriage” as simply “marriage,” until all 50 states make marriage equality a priority, until we stop referring to gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people as “queers,” “faggots” or “dykes,” until social divides on any basis are clearly broken, then this will be a gilded nation built on hypocritical values.

Teach children to be accepting of all people, regardless of race, color, class, religion or sexual orientation. Be demanding: pressure Congress and state legislatures until they grant liberties and fair treatment to everyone.

Think before using derogatory remarks. Stand up for each and every American—if we don’t protect each other, who will?

In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” So until the day that every man, woman and child in this country feels equally protected and equally respected by the federal and state governments, we shall overcome.