Celebrating MLK Day: Reclaiming Our Movement Legacy
Opal Tometi, Executive Director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter
Co-authored by Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors-Brignac
Today, people across the country pause and remember the legacy of civil rights leader, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. For many, the birthday of Dr. King is a time to reflect on peace and non-violence, to remember the dream, to perform service in your community, and for others, it is a much needed three-day weekend, a respite after returning to work from a busy holiday season.
Yet this year, King’s legacy is being thought of in the context of the #BlackLivesMatter movement which has spread like wildfire throughout the United States and around the world. Ignited by the killings of Islan Nettles, Mike Brown, Rekia Boyd, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Aiyana Jones, Jordan Davis and too many more by police and vigilantes, Dr. King’s legacy and his work take on a different meaning in today’s world.
What we know about the legacy of Dr. King has been largely sanitized, re-configured, and appropriated to obscure his radical vision. Dr. King nurtured visions of a movement that could restore a deep and abiding love for all of humanity; a world where the restoration of democracy and full citizenship, of an economic system that could provide for everyone, and an end to war and militarization. Dr. King’s dream tackled poverty and systemic inequality. Ultimately his vision was a society with human rights for all.
Indeed, Dr. King’s dream was radical for his political and material context. And there were many in his time that challenged him and worked alongside him to ensure the collective vision would come to fruition. The contributions of leaders such as King’s senior advisor, Bayard Rustin, a gay man, was the visionary behind the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, an early initiator of the 1947 Freedom Rides. Other friends of Dr. King such as Ella Baker, who worked with many organizations including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, challenged him and others in the ’50s and ’60s to engage in more democratic leadership styles and noted the importance of local community organizing campaigns. These relationships and challenges to political thinking shaped Dr. King. And this attention to political analysis and practice was important then and is important for us today.
When we founded #BlackLivesMatter in 2013, we wanted to create a political space within and amongst our communities for activism that could stand firmly on the shoulders of movements that have come before us, such as the civil rights movement, while innovating on its strategies, practices and approaches to finally centralize the leadership of those existing at the margins of our economy and our society.
#BlackLivesMatter, a project started by three black women, two of whom are queer women and one who is a Nigerian-American, has opened up the political space for that new leadership, and as a result, a new movement to emerge. Black trans people, Black queer people, Black immigrants, Black incarcerated people and formerly incarcerated people, Black millennials, Black women, low income Black people, and Black people with disabilities are at the front, exercising a new leadership that is bold, innovative, and radical.
There are important implications for the possibilities that this new layer of leadership can offer the movement as a whole. We create much more room for collaboration, for expansion, for building power when we nurture movements that are full of leaders, and allow for all of our identities to inform our work and how we organize. This then allows for leadership to emerge from our intersecting identities, rather than to be organized around one notion of Blackness. Because of this, we resist the urge to consolidate our power and efforts behind one charismatic leader.
When we center the leadership of the many who exist at the margins, we learn new things about the ways in which state sanctioned violence impacts us all. Dr. King once said, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” And what we have learned from Dr. King’s words and our current practice is that when a movement full of leaders from the margins gets underway, it makes the connections between social ills, it rejects the compromise and respectability politics of the past, and it opens up new political space for radical visions of what this nation can truly become.
And the best part is — we’re just getting started.
Let this be the year that we expand the #BlackLivesMatter movement through the experiences of Black immigrants — more than 500,000 in this country alone who are fighting criminalization and the separation of our families through a broken immigration system.
Let this be the year that we expand the #BlackLivesMatter movement through the experiences of Black transgender people, who currently have a life expectancy of 35 years because we are denied the basic respect and dignity of affordable and accessible health care, and because we are more often the victims of violence then we are the survivors.
Let this be the year that we expand the #BlackLivesMatter movement through the experiences of Black women in the economy, who make 64 cents to every dollar that a white man makes.
This year, the #BlackLivesMatter network joins Ferguson Action and thousands of others in a joint effort to #ReclaimMLK. For the last four days, people around the world have reclaimed the legacy of MLK by engaging in radical acts of civil disobedience, by bringing our vision and our dreams and the needs of our communities to the halls of power across the country, by doing teach-ins about the social and economic issues that, when resolved through social and legislative action, and by connecting climate change, gentrification, poverty and economic inequality — thereby further illuminating the dream of #BlackLivesMatter.
A simple utterance that touched our hearts so deeply when we breathed life into it has also touched the hearts and energized the actions of thousands across the world who are fighting to reclaim our nation’s humanity.
We are the ones that we have been waiting for.
Alicia Garza is the Special Projects Director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance and a co-creator of #BlackLivesMatter. She organizes Black domestic workers across the diaspora in NDWA’s We Dream In Black project, and serves as trusted counsel for organizations across the country looking to build their capacity to lead and win organizing campaigns.
Patrisse Cullors is an artist, organizer and freedom fighter living and working in Los Angeles. As founder of Dignity and Power Now and co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter, she has worked tirelessly promoting law enforcement accountability across the nation.