When the grassy expanses and the shaded walkways radiating from the Lincoln Memorial and its Reflecting Pool fill up this weekend to mark the 60th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, the gathered throngs calling on the federal government to protect voting rights will carry with them the weight of countless individual journeys.
Among them will be Zuley Yepez, whose intergenerational pathway to the march one might call particularly long. Her mother walked to the U.S. from war-torn Nicaragua in the 1980s and her father fled the civil war in El Salvador. Yepez, a soft-spoken former Marine studying to become an immigration attorney, is the first to insist she is not one of the “heroes” who will be at the Aug. 26 commemoration. She reserves that distinction for the Black civil rights leaders, old and young, she reveres.
But in her fierce desire to protect the rights of those who, like her family, seek new lives in the U.S., Yepez has undertaken a journey that is both inspired by and representative of the dream Martin Luther King Jr. expressed to the 250,000 people at the 1963 gathering.
“The people that were part of the Civil Rights Movement, it’s because of them that immigrants were able to become citizens in this country and to advocate legally for our own rights,” said Yepez, 32. “If it wasn’t for the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, everything that followed, the rest of us wouldn’t have our civil rights protected.”
Yepez is one of 45 fellows of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Advocacy Institute who are traveling to Washington this weekend as part of a large and diverse SPLC delegation, including SPLC President and CEO Margaret Huang, who is scheduled to speak at the event.
Grassroots activists, students, entrepreneurs, formerly incarcerated men and women, lawyers and judges among them, the Advocacy Institute fellows come from vastly different backgrounds and have traveled many different journeys.
What unites them is the desire to make change. And they all know that access to the ballot is the key to unlocking change across the array of inequities that challenge their communities.
“We are in a state of crisis in our country, and for the past two years the SPLC has been committed to ensuring that when we think about this fight for democracy, that the people are not lost in that equation,” said Waikinya Clanton, director of the SPLC’s Mississippi state office.
“That is why we committed the resources to creating the Advocacy Institute,” Clanton said. “We are thrilled to come to Washington not only to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, but to play our role in the continued fight for voting rights in this country.”
Among those marching with Yepez will be Corrin Dixon, 21, a college senior starting a nonprofit to help people of color learn how to pass generational wealth on to their descendants; TJ Mayfield, 30, a former dialysis patient who today leads the Mississippi Kidney Foundation; and Paul Winfield, 17, a high school senior who founded an organization to recruit young people to run for political office.
The Advocacy Institute is a series of seminars launched two years ago to teach local leaders skills to advocate for the needs of their communities. It is among several initiatives and partnerships the SPLC is developing as the organization launched in 1971 builds on its landmark court victories to work more closely than ever with grassroots advocates and local communities.
Institute fellows receive stipends and are taught by prominent policymakers, elected officials, advocates, attorneys and other subject matter experts the skills they need to work for transformative change in their communities. The SPLC plans to grow the Institute into a lasting training ground for new organizers, first in Mississippi and then throughout the Deep South.
When the Advocacy Institute fellows arrive in Washington today for a pre-march “Dinner & Discussion: A Conversation on the Continuous Fight for Voting Rights in the Deep South” dinner, accompanied by Huang and other SPLC leaders, they will bring with them a raft of talents, experiences and challenges.
The youngest among them is Winfield, the 17-year-old from Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Motivated by deep inequities
Winfield said he first became interested in advocacy while still in grade school. That’s when his father was incarcerated for two years and Winfield became aware of the deep inequities of the criminal justice system.
By the time he was in high school, Winfield had begun to speak out against capital punishment on TikTok. Pretty soon, he said, he was posting on an array of criminal justice reform issues, then about climate change and gun violence prevention. Now his account has over 21,000 followers.
Inspired by some of the young political leaders on the national stage and convinced that young people have to be encouraged not just to vote but to run for office, Winfield is in the midst of creating a political action committee fueled by the Advocacy Institute that is designed to help fund the campaigns of Generation Z political candidates.
Winfield said that when he heard about the Advocacy Institute, he thought he was signing up for a program for high school students. He registered, wrote an essay and, when he was accepted, got a ride from his parents to Jackson, about an hour away, for the first seminar.
“I showed up and there were all these older people,” Winfield recalled, laughing. “I got really spooked that first day.”
Now Winfield said he is thrilled to be joining his fellow Institute graduates for the march in Washington.
“A lot of times organizations don’t always utilize young people,” Winfield said. “I’m so grateful to the SPLC for providing such an opportunity to be part of such an important moment in history.”
Helping build generational wealth
Corrin Dixon is not much older than Winfield. A 21-year-old mass communications major at Tougaloo College, a historically Black college in Jackson, Dixon came to the attention of the SPLC as a campus leader who has been deeply involved in working with underserved youth and other anti-poverty initiatives.
In November 2022, when Dixon’s grandmother died without a valid will, Dixon said the ensuing difficulties for her family in funding funeral expenses and ensuring the integrity of her grandmother’s modest savings made her wonder if other Black families faced the same issues. Dixon said she learned that 77% of Black people and 82% of Latinx people in the U.S. lack wills.
The research earned Dixon a grant from the Advocacy Institute. She is using the funds to start a nonprofit that will provide easy-to-access forms, data and advice on creating wills and trusts to communities that lack such options.
“Black people are historically on the lower end of the scale as far as generational wealth,” Dixon said. “But even if they just have a small house or a piece of land or a car or a wedding ring, if we can make sure everybody has a will or a trust, then their wealth is protected, it can grow and it can be passed down.”
The more she knows about the generational wealth issue, Dixon said, the more she is convinced that protecting the right for all Americans to vote simply and easily is critical to closing the gap. Local elected officials, she said, play key roles in fostering or limiting access to the forms and systems people need to secure what they own.
“We need to be educating our community members about who best to vote into those positions,” Dixon said.
‘Willing to work harder’
As the grandson of a leading Black pastor in Vicksburg, TJ Mayfield said he was raised to think about service. His struggles with kidney disease, he said, made him aware that if his family had not had the resources for top-notch medical care, he would not have survived.
“When I got my kidney, I felt I would love to do more for the people in the community,” Mayfield said. “People die every day, especially people of color, because they don’t have the resources that they need.”
A history teacher for six years before he became a policy advocate, Mayfield said he took his students to the last march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma attended by John Lewis before he died.
“It was an experience of a lifetime, and it helped me to really understand you don’t know what tomorrow holds, because John Lewis passed away not long after that,” Mayfield said. “It made me willing to work harder in my community.”
Now executive director of the Mississippi Kidney Foundation, Mayfield said he is keenly aware that advocating for public health depends on improving equity.
“In a state like Mississippi, putting people in office who are willing to fight to expand hospitals and jobs in the medical field is key,” Mayfield said.
And that, he said, is dependent on improving access to the voting booth.
‘Disturbed my soul’
For Yepez, fighting for the right to vote comes naturally. She has had to fight for everything she has her whole life.
When her family first came to the U.S., Yepez’s mother was able to secure a work permit, and with it a job that provided decent pay at a prison in California. But at some point, the work permit was lost, and with it the job. Yepez’s mother, afraid she would be deported, cleaned houses to make ends meet.
As a child, Yepez used to accompany her mother on the cleaning jobs, helping when she could. She was 12 when, having lost their house and their savings, the family was forced to move in with her aunt.
Joining the Marines was a choice Yepez made out of financial necessity, she said. In her eight years in the armed services, largely stationed in the Pacific, she said she faced a persistent culture of sexual harassment.
When Yepez was living in Mississippi in 2019, a series of raids at poultry plants led to the deportation of hundreds of Latinx workers.
“Just thinking of what could happen if I was in that situation and I was taken away and my children didn’t have anybody,” Yepez said, “it disturbed my soul.”
That was when Yepez said she decided to pursue immigration law. She had to work hard to do so, but she said watching her mother during her youth – cleaning house after house and knowing what she had to do to make it to the U.S. – showed her the way.
For the past three years Yepez, a widow, has juggled a full-time job at a Navy installation, full-time coursework and caring for her children, now 11 and 6. She will graduate from Mississippi State University in the spring with a degree in political science and history. Then she plans to apply to law school.
“My mom, she’s only 5 feet tall, she traveled on foot all the way from Nicaragua to California, she went through the desert, she went through the Rio Grande,” Yepez said. “She has no fear. She always taught me to know where we came from and to work for our community, to get myself in a stable place so I can make people in our community more stable, too.”
Photo at top: Fellows of the SPLC’s Advocacy Institute will head to D.C. this weekend for an event commemorating the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington. (Credit: Hillary Andrews)