There’s an image of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that’s seared into my mind. Eyes inviting and innocent, face relaxed, the casually dressed Dr. King reminds me of a cousin at a card party — he looks so young. When Dr. King elucidated his dream at the March on Washington in 1963, he was 34 — younger than most Americans now, given the national median age of 38.
Despite his youth, or perhaps because of it, Dr. King understood the long view of history. He could not have foreseen a crowd brandishing guns and ransacking the Capitol, abetted by a failed president and right-wing digital media networks peddling debunked conspiracy theories. But he might have foreseen the Senate election victories of two youthful Southerners, Jon Ossoff, 33, and Raphael Warnock, 51, the latter a charismatic preacher and a successor to his pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Dr. King was a mobilizer of voters as much as he was an orator. To put voting rights at the forefront of the country’s consciousness, Dr. King helped launch a voter-registration drive in Selma, Ala., in early 1965. In many marches, over many weeks, Dr. King accompanied hundreds of Selma’s Black residents to the county courthouse. During one voter registration trip, he and 250 demonstrators were hauled to jail by the segregationist sheriff. That very day, county officers arrested some 500 schoolchildren who were protesting discrimination.
When a 26-year-old Black civil rights activist, Jimmie Lee Jackson, was fatally shot during a march in nearby Marion, Ala., Dr. King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organized a voting-rights march from Selma to the state Capitol in Montgomery. The hundreds of demonstrators, including Hosea Williams, 39, and John Lewis, 25, chairman of the S.N.C.C., were stopped as they left Selma, at the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Alabama state troopers and local vigilantes attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas. Alongside others badly injured, Mr. Lewis (a future U.S. congressman) suffered a fractured skull during “Bloody Sunday.”
The march resumed days later with federal protection. It stood on the shoulders of longstanding action: As far back as the 1930s, Ella Baker, in her 20s and 30s, worked as a community organizer in New York. By the mid-1940s, she was traveling across the South, recruiting new members to anti-racist groups and registering voters.
Personally and through their work, Ms. Baker, Mr. Williams, Mr. Lewis and Dr. King faced down legally sanctioned oppression. They confronted horrors that we do not feel as regularly in our bones. They lived through them. How is it that they remained patriots?
In this moment made so dark by white nationalism and truth denial, Americans should look to these examples of young leaders with forward-thinking wisdom to carry us through, to show how our civil rights ancestors got things done. This country can survey their organizing tactics to see step-by-step how Dr. King and his allies accomplished so much. Commemoration involves studying their careers as a strategy and amending their efforts to provide a road map to achieving political power.
At this tender juncture in our country’s trajectory, countless young grass-roots leaders and local organizations are reshaping human equality and power. Setting a national example, the New Georgia Project, Black Voters Matter and Georgia STAND-UP were part of an effort that registered roughly 520,000 overlooked, new voters after 2016. The New Georgia Project alone knocked on at least two million doors, made over six million phone calls and sent four million texts to get out the vote during the general election and the runoff, according to the organization.
To Americans who voted for the first time this cycle, or to anyone else born after 2002, Bloody Sunday can seem like ancient history — as distant and abstract as the Teapot Dome scandal. I’ve spoken to young people who don’t know what a sit-in or redlining is. But to others who cast a ballot for Mr. Warnock or Mr. Ossoff, a direct protégé of John Lewis, watching Confederates storm a federal building after a failed right-wing attempt to invalidate votes in heavily Black Democratic strongholds, Bloody Sunday does not look like distant history at all.
Georgia’s electoral upsets and the resistance to Trumpism belong to a larger narrative and pantheon of liberation campaigns. These movements do not peddle in transactional politics; they forge transformative politics. They don’t dwell in the greasy realm of back-scratching and short-term calculation. They work deeply in vision, courage and action, persevering and believing in themselves when no one else does.
“You see, I think that, to be very honest, the movement made Martin rather than Martin making the movement,” Ella Baker once reflected to an interviewer. “This is not a discredit to him. This is, to me, as it should be.”
As we commemorate Dr. King, we need to toss the “great man” concept of leadership, our knee-jerk longing to worship epic individuals and not citizen action. Contrary to the mythology of most King celebrations, Dr. King’s true contribution wasn’t as a single messiah of civil rights, but as a formidable organizer of people and causes. To peddle the great Moses version of Dr. King’s legacy is to betray the greatness of his extraordinary deeds, whose lessons and necessity are more urgent than ever.
Rich Benjamin (@IAmRichBenjamin) is writing a book that will be a family memoir and portrait of America. He is the author of “Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America.”
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