Opinion writer

LaTOSHA BROWN: The answers lie in what was, what was done, right? And the text that has been laid out. And not only do we want to hear, which we are going to do more of tonight, we also show appreciation, and we show homage from the work that we are doing. Many of us get paid to do this work now, which you didn’t get to get. You had to figure out how to rob Peter to pay Paul, to march and organize. We now get a sector where we get to fight for freedom as a profession.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: LaTosha Brown is the co-founder of Black Votes Matter, and she’s talking about how activism is different for her than for the leaders of the 1960s movement.

Brown was one of the people at the civil rights retreat I went to at Sunnylands in California this past January. The retreat was organized by Clarence B. Jones. You may remember him from earlier in this series as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s lawyer who smuggled out the Letter from Birmingham jail.

Jones is now 88 years old. And he organized this retreat to bring together civil rights veterans like himself. People like Andrew Young, Bernard Lafayette, Minnijean Brown-Trickey and others you’ve heard throughout this series.

CLARENCE B. JONES: So we know that we are the surviving members. Sometimes I’ve heard this religious term “disciples” used, which makes me uncomfortable not because, I’m not religious. Disciples of Dr. King’s leadership.

CAPEHART: Jones called them to join together with the next generation of civil rights leaders, like LaTosha Brown, for a specific purpose.


Clarence B. Jones at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands. (Jonathan Capehart/The Washington Post)

JONES: I don’t have to tell you. You didn’t have to come all this distance just to say, “Okay, we’re gonna celebrate Martin,” and so forth. No, no, no, no, no. He wouldn’t want us to do that, you know better than that. We gotta deal. We got to deal with what’s going on in this country. Based upon the experiences that we’ve had.

CAPEHART: Jones wanted these leaders to gather because all of these voices you’ve heard during this series, they’re not going to be with us forever. And he wanted the gathered to send a message to the next generation. A message about what it takes to create change, or as Andrew Young put it.

ANDREW YOUNG: So, there were all kinds of struggles going on in our midst, and the fact that we are still hanging on trying is what we have to say to these kids.

CAPEHART: I’m Jonathan Capehart and this is “Voices of the Movement,” a series from my podcast “Cape Up” sharing the stories and lessons of some of the leaders of the civil rights movement and using them to figure out where we go from here.

Andrew Young’s refrain, “What we have to say to these kids,” was repeated a lot over the weekend. The implicit mission was clear: Pass the baton to the next generation of leaders. It drove every conversation.

CLAYBORNE CARSON: I’m not sure that it’s a matter of passing on any baton, they’ve taken the baton.

GERALD DURLEY: That’s what I was going to say, I encourage them to take the baton. Who passed it to Harriet Tubman? Nobody passed it on. Who passed it on to King? You’re in the position and, so many times, the students in the AU Center and I said, “Look, when are y’all gonna pass it on. It’s passed on. Here it is. Take it.”

This conversation happened between Clayborne Carson, the director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, and Rev. Gerald Durley, who was a student leader of the movement of the 1960s, and is now pastor emeritus at Providence Missionary Baptist Church.

I went to Taylor Branch, for some perspective on what he thought about passing the baton.

TAYLOR BRANCH: Well, it’s a daunting task to think that if you had a baton you could pass it.

CAPEHART: Taylor Branch is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Parting the Waters” and he’s considered the authority and chronicler of America in the King years.


Author and historian Taylor Branch. (Jonathan Capehart/The Washington Post)

BRANCH: But I do think that it is a useful exercise for these people who helped make a movement or in my case studied those people who made a movement, to think about what analogies there could be between now and then even what is inspiring to people and what is galling to people in this age, what moves them in one way or another, what enrages them what inspires them. Because out of that is where movements come from.

After all, a movement starts when you’re moved and being moved in a small way . . . a movement makes being moved in a small way contagious and grow until it affects history. And that’s an amazing process. It’s not that often studies and you certainly can’t put it in a can and hand it to somebody.

But I think it presumes that young people today are dissatisfied with our world and would like a movement. And the question is: What inspires them? What provokes them? And what commonalities are there with the era that these people here are remembering?

YOUNG: The spiritual foundations on which all social change rests is basically said to redeem the soul of America from the triple evils of racism, poverty and war.

CAPEHART: That’s Andrew Young again. He told me that commonalities are found in what the next generation is fighting for … and against.

YOUNG: That’s a comprehensive way to describe what social change is about. Its evolution toward a more perfect union, toward a better society, toward an end to hunger. And also to an environment that is not in the process of destroying the Earth.

I grew up in the [1930s] and my parents, my father was active with the NAACP. My mother was active with the Urban League and the YWCA in New Orleans, La. And when we came along, I ended up working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Well, that was a different generational approach, and I think with the younger generation coming along, everybody is talking about passing the baton. I don’t think — that’s not a rational action, an inevitable evolution that my son is not supposed to agree with me. He just isn’t. He knows a lot of what I know, but he just decided that that he didn’t want anything to do with politics or the church. He thought that the answer was business and actually that’s what Martin Luther King said, that to redeem the soul of America from the triple evils of racism, war and poverty, well, some people have to go into business, because government alone cannot end poverty.

CAPEHART: If Andrew Young is about the evolution of the movement, Minnijean Brown-Trickey wanted the next generation to know that they’re doing things exactly right — mistakes and all.

MINNIJEAN BROWN-TRICKEY: Well so what I came — you know, there was supposed to be a discussion today and I came to the conclusion that I would say they were just like we are. They’re just doing what they have to do. And they’re doing it, and they’re making all the mistakes, and they’re doing it right. And they’re getting all the criticism. And they’re being told that they don’t have the right structure. And so it’s a rerun. So all I could say to them is, “It’s complicated. Just do what you think you can. It’s complicated.” I mean, I’m excited. I would like to change things totally. But if I can’t change them, I like the effort to try to change them. There’s something very exciting about that. I’ve been in things that have had victories and things that have had horrible defeats. But I’ve learned lots in the process. I keep telling my kids, “Damn, I wish I could download this brain onto a disk, because it’s got a lot of stuff in there.

CAPEHART: What you admire most about the next generation?


Minnijean Brown-Trickey, who was one of the Little Rock Nine. (Jonathan Capehart/The Washington Post)

BROWN-TRICKEY: Well, I mean, the same thing I think I admired . . . you, or you end up admiring about . . . The way I think about it is, I do a lot of things with young people and I say, it’s an exchange of wisdom and energy. So they got the energy and they can go out and do things. I’ve got the wisdom, and we can combine those two things into something really important. So I mean I kind of like, I think it’s cool to be naive and think you can change the world because that’s the only way you can. And so they’re not — well everybody says they’re jaded, but I don’t think they know enough to be jaded. They’re pushing it too early because they haven’t had enough trials to be jaded. They can’t. It’s not fair for them to think that they’re jaded. Now, there’s so much more to come to give them reason to be jaded.

So it’s kind of like that . . . doing the activism to work against the pessimism and to keep the, sort of, I don’t if you’re going to go far and say optimism, but to keep the potential alive.

CAPEHART: And passing along this knowledge and keeping the potential alive is exactly what Clarence Jones wanted to do.

JONES: There are many of us who were privileged to work with Dr. King. But the reality is I’m gonna be 88 in a few days. The reality is, those of us who worked with him closely, we’re not going to be around in a few years. And we have a collective responsibility, I thought, that we should pass on some of the experiences. And let me state it as loud as I can say, I don’t’ want anybody to be confused about what I’m about to tell you. The theme of this is to redeem the soul of America. But to redeem it from the standpoint to let you know as we elders, we love you. We love you. We love you. And we want you to succeed in whatever way you think is appropriate based on successes, failures, and your own journey going forward.

CAPEHART: Passing on some of the experience s also entailed fielding questions. Questions about all aspects of the movement.

Questions about power . . .


LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Votes Matter, leads the group in song at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, Calif., on Jan 5. (Jonathan Capehart/The Washington Post)

LaTOSHA BROWN: There’s a larger piece around — and I am interested in hearing from all three of you — how do you see power?

YOUNG: Power is peace.

BROWN: Okay.

YOUNG: I want peace. And peace is bread on the table. It’s a place to lay my head.

CAPEHART: Questions about empathy . . .

EVA BORWARDT: I have questions regarding empathy. So it was part of the last point that was being mentioned. So I do think we have a public health crisis with this lack of empathy, and this growing lack of empathy. So question that obviously doesn’t have to be answered now, it can be answered later at any point, but I’m wondering if you have any perspective — I’m sure you do many — on how we can actually increase empathy. How do you teach empathy? How do you get people to be empathetic to the point of modifying voting preferences? Because it’s one thing for people to be like, “Oh yeah, that’s a struggle. You’re right, that sucks.” It’s another thing for them to actually vote for a person that may not be in their best interest, by profit, by whatever, to support a cause of somebody else. So . . .

JONES: Empathy is a very effective tool. A very effective tool. A very necessary tool. And the challenge is that there’s a body of evidence, a legacy of experience. And those of us who were fortunate enough to participate in creating that experience we’re just saying to you, let’s sit down, we want you to take that experience and you have some skill sets. You have some skill sets that we didn’t have. The media, cellphones and all those things. You have powerful forms of communication. So it seems to me the challenge is how do you use those powerful forms of communication to deal with the question of empathy? To get people to really care about someone else’s condition?

CAPEHART: Questions about pragmatism and priorities . . .

SPEAKER NO. 1: You know, I was thinking and even our small group and all the people in that room. We had just half the people that were in that larger room. The different places that they come from, the different causes that they’re committed to. It’s so all over, and they’re all meaningful causes, but in some ways I think the civil rights movement — and forgive me because I’m a student of history, I didn’t live the history — but from my perspective, in some ways there was a concentrated focus that helped to give it direction and organization, and bring people together, and create coalitions. If we think about this moment now and we think about what it is that we want to achieve, there are so many things that we feel radically passionate about that it’s pulling people apart. How do we start deciding where to put our energy’s in. Is it voting? Is it . . . ?

JONES: Priorities.

SPEAKER NO. 1: Yeah, priorities and how do you . . . I mean that’s a pragmatic question, how do you bring that together? And in some sense, can you think about civil rights in this moment? Is there a place for all of the people who are looking for basic human rights? Is there a place for the undocumented immigrants? Is there a place for trans, lesbian, gay communities? Is there a place for people in rural communities. And so how does that all come together?

JONES: If you look at the history of where African American people have come, we knew that we had to get the federal government to protect us.

CAPEHART: There were also observations by the next generation that added new dimensions to issues that rang familiar to the civil rights veterans.

SPEAKER NO. 2: What I’m always struggling with as someone who’s committed to nonviolence is this notion that it’s fine for some of us to be committed to nonviolence. The people who have to be active in order to move the freedom struggle are who we like to call Pookie and Ray-Ray in the streets, right? They are young people. And there is a fierce . . .

I think what we’re often times wrestling with is like when I think about my dad’s generation. My dad’s 72. And so when I’m talking to him, they grew up out of the black church in the South, where there was a shared ethic around certain ideals and notions, which is not necessarily present amongst this emerging generation. And so what I’m always trying to wrestle with is, I feel it’s my responsibility to figure out how we get young black people, young brown folks, activated and pushing the freedom struggle.

CLIFTON KINNIE: And I don’t necessarily think that my generation . . . We don’t know what we want. A lot of people say we don’t know what we want. We do. Generally, we want to live in a world in which we are no longer fighting to survive.

JONES: Hello.

KINNIE: Internally, we have to figure out how we’re going to get there. Externally, we have to figure out the vision and we have to get there. We don’t want to live in a world in which we want to survive. We want to live. We want to have an opportunity to thrive. That means access to health care. You said a moral right. I agree [with] what you said. Health care, housing, education, those are the things. Access to food, clothing, those basic things . . .

SPEAKER NO. 3: Basic human rights.

KINNIE: Yes.

SPEAKER NO. 3: Right.

CAPEHART: And there were acknowledgements that there were still things to learn about King, about his life and leadership . . .

SPEAKER NO. 4: A lot of times we hear about the Dr. King from not just Montgomery, but from the “I Have a Dream” speech. I think, for our generation, and I can speak for myself, we have to do a better job of studying King and not allowing people to shape his narrative for us.

[Applause]

But it was another gentleman in here that was speaking about. . . . Oh, I’m sorry, there you are right there. All right. We spoke a lot about the sentiment of Dr. King and a lot of things that I didn’t really think about. A lot of times we see all the accomplishments of King, but we don’t realize that if there wasn’t the Montgomery Bus Boycott, there may not have been a King as we know it. So I think for all of us, it’s just being prepared, because for many of us we’ve been doing this work for a long time and we might not. . . . The apparatuses are different.

And I asked a question personally about the popularity of King before he passed away and why he thought that happened, and we just really dove into that conversation. And one of the things that he said that really stuck with me was that the agenda that Dr. King had taken on and embraced, in a sense, it was somewhat completed with the passing of the [1964] Voting Rights Act. What that means is that he came in at a time where there was a set agenda. And because that happened from [1965 to 1968], it was almost like we see this transformation of Dr. King. So, I'm gonna go back and study those three years of his life and understand it because there's a lot that I think we can learn from each other.

The brothers and sisters in here that were alive during that time, we really should just embrace what they have to offer.

CAPEHART: Over the last two months, you’ve heard familiar voices . . .

REP. JOHN LEWIS: You have to go back. ​You get young people, and people who are not so young, to go back, to understand, to learn, to be inspired — that when they see something that is not right or fair or just, they, too, can do something or say something.

CAPEHART: You’ve heard new voices. . .

LaTOSHA BROWN: We show homage from the work that we are doing, many of us get paid to do this work now which you didn’t get to get. You had to figure out how to rob Peter to pay Paul, to march and organize.

CAPEHART: You learned details about stories you know . . .

CLARENCE B. JONES: That time I stuck them in my pockets and under my shirt because they were in different piles. But over the next few days, when I was bringing him paper and taking back what he had written. I would take them and put them under my shirt.

CAPEHART: And you heard stories you hadn’t heard before . . .

REP. BARBARA LEE: I said, “Miss C.” We called her Miss C. or Shirley. “How could you do that? I mean this man. First of all, he’s running against you. And secondly, he’s running for president. And thirdly, he’s a segregationist and he’s trying to maintain the status quo that you’re trying to change. And once again, she shook her finger at me. She said, “Little girl,” she says, “C’mon now, you’re working with me in my campaign, helping me,” she said. “But sometimes we have to remember we’re all human beings, and I may be able to teach him something, to help him regain his humanity, to maybe make him open his eyes to make him see something that he has not seen.”

CAPEHART: You’ve heard how the commitment to achieving equality is deep . . .

MINNIJEAN BROWN-TRICKEY: So I mean, you don’t get it. It’s a life sentence. That’s my thing. All this activism is a life sentence. You do not give it up. I’m looking at these people. These older people. They’ve been doing this their whole lives. Very quietly. You don’t get away. It ain’t over. And it’s kind of cool.

CAPEHART: And purpose driven . . .

ANDREW YOUNG: I remember he used to say that, you know, some of us are not going to make it to 40. He said, but if we make it 40, we can make it to 100. Well, he didn’t make it to 40. So it becomes almost an obligation for me to keep doing whatever I can do as long as I can do it. I’ll be 87 in another month, and I don’t know whether I can make 100 or not, but you can’t waste the experience we’ve had.

CAPEHART: Most importantly, you’ve heard how this commitment spans generations. . . . And how the voices of the movement remain as clear and vibrant and resolute . . . as ever.

Listen to Episode 8: The power of nonviolent resistance

Related:

Listen to the entire “Voices of the Movement” podcast series

Read more from Jonathan Capehart