As a little girl growing up in Lincoln, Alabama, I recognized that things were very different in rural communities than they were in nearby cities. Our access to health care was extremely limited. The community knew what problems existed, just as communities across the country do today. We didn’t need a savior, we needed people to work in community with us to create the change we sought.
As we celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Monday, I’m reminded of how he and other civil rights activists and leaders like Ella Baker and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth empowered people to advocate for the resources and justice they needed.
It came at a time when a perception existed that the South wasn’t worth saving: Rather than fight for racial justice and opportunity, it was best to pick up and find it elsewhere. King and others helped shift this misguided narrative by lifting up the resilient and courageous men, women and children who were willing to join in community to fight for their freedom throughout the Civil Rights Movement. They helped harness the power of community by working with people on the ground who were facing challenges and injustices. As the Alabama state director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, I find that this is a model that motivates my work to help the state’s communities.
However, as people join community groups to celebrate the holiday and King’s legacy with a “day of service,” we must recognize that one daylong project in a community of color should be a beginning and not an end. We must realize the scope of social justice work. The issues that King championed, such as economic justice, Black homeownership, eradicating poverty and closing the wealth gap are still with us and require more than a day’s work.
Change takes place from generation to generation. For this reason, King and movement leaders invested heavily in youth activism, with Baker founding the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and activists encouraging parents to engage their children in civic protest. At the SPLC, we follow the lessons of King and other organizers by encouraging young people – and, ultimately, all people – to be active in their communities and to participate in the democratic process.
These lessons are critically important today as we see attempts to censor educators and prevent the accurate teaching of our history in public school curriculums – history that includes powerful lessons about community activism we must not forget. And I’m sure there are children today, who, like me years ago, see stark disparities in the communities they call home. There is much work ahead for today, tomorrow and years to come.
We honor King’s legacy best when people like you volunteer with social justice organizations, such as the SPLC, the NAACP, the Legal Defense Fund or the American Civil Liberties Union to advocate for lasting change.
Illustration at top by the SPLC