FILE - Martin Luther King, Jr. crosses the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., heading to the capitol in Montgomery on March 21, 1965. (AP Photo/File)
FILE - Martin Luther King, Jr. crosses the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., heading to the capitol in Montgomery on March 21, 1965. (AP Photo/File)

As the push for racial equality continues, those leading the fights against injustice want us to dig deeper, and think about how we all can improve the future for Black Americans.

This Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Black activists, such as Angela Lang, executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Community (BLOC), want people to go deeper into King’s work, his words, and his legacy.

“I think it’s very easy for people to feel that, ‘Oh, Martin Luther King wants us all to get along. He wants us all not to see skin color,’ Lang said. “And I think that has been incredibly whitewashed.”

After the 2020 murder of George Floyd, and the protests over policing and criminal justice reform, the US underwent a racial reckoning; Black-owned bookstores had books on race, racism, and white privilege on back order for months. But in 2021, a backlash emerged, particularly in critical race theory bills that in reality would stifle the teaching of history and race.

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The civil rights movement of the 1960s faced similar fluctuations in support and backlash. Lang and other activists said they plan to look back on that history to glean whatever lessons, tactics, and hope they can. 

“I encourage people on this holiday—specifically folks that claim to be allies or accomplices—to really do that work, and not just have this blackout on Instagram or put up a quote on Twitter and think you’re doing the work,” Lang said. “I feel like we are living in our own Civil Rights Era now… And so for me, I think about what are the lessons learned as we continue these fights?”

History Repeating Itself

Selika Ducksworth-Lawton, history professor at UW-Eau Claire, has been organizing the UW-Eau Claire Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, which combines history and art to reflect on King’s legacy. This year excerpts from King’s “Where do we go from here?” speech, will be read, which Ducksworth-Lawton said are particularly fitting for this moment in time. 

King gave that speech after the 1965 riots, which were in response to police brutality, and after which the Civil Rights Movement received a lot of pushback from whites who Ducksworth-Lawton said were having “compassion fatigue.” She drew parallels between that time period and the “violent temper tantrums” by white supremacists today.

“For people who are comfortable and don’t want to change, those videos are hard to reconcile,” Ducksworth-Lawton said. “For the people who don’t want to have to do anything to fix that reality, we see them backlashing.”

Ducksworth-Lawton said the push to not discuss this nation’s history of race and racism is only further exacerbating the issues, many of which—voting rights, policing, incarceration, housing, poverty—are still with us today. 

“The people who object to the teaching about Ruby Bridges, the people who object to teaching about Selma, the people who object to teaching about Jim Crow laws that were unconstitutional, are unhappy because they benefited,” Ducksworth-Lawton said. “Until we have an honest conversation about this history, until we stop covering up this history, we will remain two nations”

Going into 2022, BLOC is focusing on criminal justice reform, redistricting and voting rights. They also plan to launch a program to monitor court cases and raise awareness about unfair practices by judges, particularly with sentencing.

BLOC has also hired JaVonna Lue, a 3rd generation Racinian, as an organizer in Racine and Kenosha. Lue said for MLK Day, she plans to take her 11-year-old daughter to the Mahogany Gallery’s Day of Service; in fact Lue often includes her daughter in her organizing work (when appropriate) such as collecting signatures, attending protests, or having conversations with candidates and elected officials. 

“Love it,” Lang joked. “Start them young.”

For Lue it’s to teach her daughter and to remind herself of who she’s doing the work for.

“Our future depends on making a better life for the children,” Lue said. “When we’re gone, someone still has to be here and it’s gonna be my kids, my grandkids. And, I want them to still have opportunities.”