On Jan. 15, 1929, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta. By 1954, he was the leader of one of the greatest movements for freedom in history. A push for equality and justice for African Americans that became the model for other liberation struggles around the world. But King’s assassination in 1968 change the trajectory of the social justice movement he led forever.
The people who worked with King, a mass of ordinary men and women whose extraordinary actions all across the South brought the United States closer to the ideals espoused in its founding documents, carried on without him as best they could. Now, 90 years after his birth and with President Trump in the White House, the veterans of the movement are worried.
Worried about the erosion or reversal of the hard-fought gains of the last 50 years. Worried that the lessons they learned will be forgotten. Worried that time is running out for them to pass on their knowledge, encouragement and support to the next generation of leaders. Worried enough to convene an incredible gathering the first weekend of 2019 at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, Calif. That I was asked to participate in this remarkable assembly called by Clarence Jones, King’s personal attorney, will remain one of the true honors of my life. The gathering was the launch of the Gandhi King Institute for Nonviolence and Social Justice, which is based at the University of San Francisco and co-founded by Jones and Jonathan D. Greenberg, a lecturer in law at Stanford University.
Jones’s invitation expressed the urgency that he and the veterans feel. “This project is for me the expression of ‘the fierce urgency of now’ — in terms of the moral emergency we are facing as a democracy. At a deeply personal level, I increasingly face the reality that at 87, 88 in Jan. 2019, I only have a limited amount of time and energy remaining to make as impactful a contribution as I can possibly make. I have so much more to do in furtherance of Dr. King’s life’s work and legacy.”
The veterans around the table the first night were some of the men and women who became icons of the civil rights movement. Minnijean Brown-Trickey was 15 years old when she integrated Central High School in 1957 as part of “the Little Rock Nine.” J.T. Johnson participated in the mass protests in Albany, Ga., and jumped into a whites-only swimming pool in St. Augustine, Fla., in 1964. The ensuing response by the police and the Ku Klux Klan is credited with pushing the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Bernard Lafayette participated in the Freedom Rides in Alabama and was a co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Bob Moses was the field secretary for SNCC and was a renowned leader of its voter-registration effort in Mississippi. Andrew Young was part of King’s inner circle and the executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) before becoming a member of Congress, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and mayor of Atlanta.
The members of the “next generation” who joined the conversation were equally impressive. They included LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund; gun control advocate Clifton Kinnie, whose activism started in Ferguson, Mo.; and Lateefah Simon, president of the Akonadi Foundation whose pioneering work in low-income communities in the San Francisco area earned her a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” fellowship in 2003.
In the coming months, my podcast “Cape Up” will bring this incredible gathering to life in a series of powerful episodes. Don’t think of the Sunnylands assembly as a kind of passing of the torch. Instead, it was a unification of effort. One that recognized that the struggle for social justice is work that is ongoing. That the next generation is mirroring what the veterans before them did by taking the reins of leadership while being guided by those who came before. They’ve had no choice, given the onslaught of tragedy and policy retrenchment over the past few years.
In her book, “The Truths We Hold: An American Journey,” Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) issues a stirring call to a nation bewildered by the regressive administration of President Trump. “It is an age-old fight. And what we know about it is this: Victories won can be lost in complacency,” the possible presidential candidate writes. “Battles lost can be won with new effort. Every generation has to recommit to the work, to the effort, and to the true meaning of the word ‘patriot.’”
In a document titled “A Call to Conscience on the 90th Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” those who gathered at Sunnylands and others who weren’t able to make it announced their recommitment to the work. “Today, as we remember Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” the communique opens, “we watch in anguish as many achievements toward a more just and equal society we believed were secure are being eviscerated in front of our eyes.”
The entire call to action ripples with anxiety and urgency as it “affirm[s] the bonds of friendship and fellowship across generations” by calling for “a new moral fusion movement on a mass scale.” It is a commitment to “dedicate ourselves to this struggle to realize the promise of American democracy on behalf of all of us who live here” while also fighting to “cool a world on fire, and save the planet from destruction, on behalf of our children’s children and their progeny into the future.”
But the anxiety of the here and now gives way to the optimism that fueled King’s and the veterans’ heralded efforts to make this a more perfect union. “The existential choice before us has become more urgent today than at any time in our lives since our beloved friend and pastor was assassinated more than fifty years ago.” the signatories write. “We cannot repair America and the world with hate, only with love.”
When we remember this — when we honor King, those who follow in his giant footsteps and their collective efforts to make this a more perfect union — we not only stand a much better chance of withstanding the strong head winds lashing us today. We also stand a chance of getting closer to “the promised land.”
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