Martin Luther King Jr: A new generation of civil rights activists tries to fulfill his ‘dream’

These leaders have taken their cues from King's most celebrated speech, delivered in 1963

Mythili Sampathkumar
New York
Wednesday 04 April 2018 10:17 BST
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Martin Luther King Jr's iconic I Have A Dream speech

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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On the 50th anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King’s death, a new generation of activists and civil rights leaders is forming and attempting to change the country amid debates on race, xenophobia, police brutality, homophobia, and Islamophobia.

These leaders have taken their cues from King and his landmark speech “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on 28 August 1963.

Patrisse Cullors

Patrisse Cullors, a Los Angeles-based African-American artist and activist, is just one of many attempting to fulfil King’s dream.

Cullors describes herself as a “freedom fighter” and founded the group Dignity and Power Now in 2012 to call for police reform in California. She is also the person who established the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, which took hold when George Zimmerman, a Florida man accused of fatally shooting black teenager Trayvon Martin, was found not guilty.

She says the speech is such an “American staple” it is hard to remember when she first heard it, but does know “it was nostalgia that I felt for a past I had never experienced but also was a type of grief I felt for a past that I never experienced”.

As an adult, Cullors says it means much more to her given what she knows about King and his goal to “relate to black people and white people and trying to relate to countries outside the US”. Knowing that King “was a radical and a revolutionary” has made that speech and his work that much more impactful for her, she adds.

Black Lives Matter storm London City airport runway

King said on that day in front of the Lincoln Memorial: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of colour are concerned.”

Fifty years later – as Black Lives Matter protests, the March for Our Lives campaigns for gun reforms, and the two Women’s Marches since President Donald Trump arrived in office have been some of the largest events in social activism history – the question for many activists and observers is whether the country has actually made progress towards King’s vision.

Cullors says: “[We have] progressed as a culture. More people are aware of the underbelly of society, more people are aware of racism. Have our policies changed? No, I think it is something of King’s dream of integration has been minimised. We integrated technically, but we still have more second-class citizens.”

DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie

DeRay Mckesson is another in this new generation of civil rights leaders. Partnering with Johnetta Elzie, the pair’s voices rose to prominence during the 2014 riots in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police-involved shooting death of resident Michael Brown. Using Twitter they documented the angst, fear and frustration of the predominantly African-American community in the heart of the American midwest outside of St Louis, Missouri.

“Our demand is simple. Stop killing us,” Ms Elzie told The New York Times.

The pair also helped launch a data collection on police killings called “Mapping Police Violence”. They won the PEN New England 2015 Howard Zinn Freedom to Write Award as well.

Black Lives Matter leader DeRay Mckesson, seen here in 2016, and four others are being sued by an unidentified Baton Rouge police officer for allegedly inciting and encouraging violence at demonstrations
Black Lives Matter leader DeRay Mckesson, seen here in 2016, and four others are being sued by an unidentified Baton Rouge police officer for allegedly inciting and encouraging violence at demonstrations (AP)

McKesson, always wearing his now infamous blue Patagonia vest, is a former school administrator in Baltimore, Maryland, and believes the death of Mr Brown is what really pushed him into activism. “I kept thinking, Kids can’t learn if they’re dead,” he told NYT..

What summed up Mckesson’s views of King’s vision best is a speech he gave in earlier this week at Princeton University. He told students: “The work of justice is almost always the work of equity. Equality is the idea that everybody gets the same thing. Equity is the notion that people get what they need and deserve. Freedom is not only the absence of oppression, but the presence of justice and joy.”

Brittany Packnett

Along with McKesson, Elzie and Samuel Sinyangwe, Brittany Packnett co-founded Campaign Zero, a charity committed to organising activists to work against police violence.

She was also a member of former president Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The organisation’s set of 10 demands to reform policing in often-impoverished and/or predominantly African-African communities is based on the work of the task force.

Packnett says she first heard King’s “I Have a Dream” speech because it was part of a documentary that was “required viewing in my house”. “I was raised in a household where the history of my people and our struggle for freedom was required knowledge, and we were raised to carry on,” she says.

“As a child, it was more than the words he spoke, but also the stage on which he spoke that was meaningful to me.”

She adds that the 1963 march “set a playbook for civil rights struggles to come, and taught me an early lesson in the collective power of community”.

“When we show up, and raise our voices, we can change the world.”

But Packnett says that though the speech was a landmark moment, what it really “represented” was the “quiet, transformational work of thousands of people before and after the speech was given” to promote equality and civil rights.

Though she feels Americans have made progress in some terms, she says: “We still have a far way to go to make the systemic progress necessary to move away from individual stories of triumph to get to true equity and liberation.

“Police violence, the violence of poverty, institutional racism and neo-Nazism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and transphobia all are still a reality of our current life, and thus, we have yet to reach King’s ‘Beloved Community’.”

She adds that people must “wrestle our country back from the grips of the xenophobic hate” of Mr Trump’s travel ban and building of a border wall with Mexico and the neo-Nazi and white supremacist violence that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. It was after that deadly protest that Trump claimed “both sides” of those opposing the removal of a Civil War-era general’s statue and those wanting to remove the reminder of centuries of brutal slavery were to blame.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is an essayist, journalist, and author. “I would like for people to be nonviolent, that’s my desire, but I’m not surprised when they’re not. You wonder how much CO2 you can pump in,” Mr Coates told The New Yorker magazine. “I am not calling for riots any more than I would call for global warming.”

Coates has long argued that institutional racism, inherent to the American system, has been what has kept the country from reaching King’s vision. He argued passionately for reparations for descendants of slavery as well as a change to federal housing programmes, which are frequently used by African Americans.

Ta-Nehisi Coates appears at a discussion at the Musee Dapper in Paris
Ta-Nehisi Coates appears at a discussion at the Musee Dapper in Paris (Rex)

He wrote in The Atlantic: “Businesses discriminated against them, awarding them the worst jobs and the worst wages. Police brutalised them in the streets. And the notion that black lives, black bodies and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society. Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, ‘Never again.’ But still we are haunted.”

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