“We shall overcome…” became a rallying cry, motivator and impetus for the “soldiers” to keep going during the ’60s civil rights movement. As Martin Luther King Jr. Day approaches, let’s review the concept, refocus the vision and revisit the strategy.
People from many walks of life – students, blue-collar workers, clergy, business owners and domestic workers, Christians and Jews, Black, White and Latino, southerners and northerners – all came together to say, “Enough!”
The battle was waged to end the terror, injustice and soul brutality of the Jim Crow South.
We overcame sitting at the back of the bus, segregated schools, water fountains, businesses and frequent lynch mobs. With joy and excitement, we watched as Martin Luther King Jr. stood looking over the shoulder of President Lyndon Baines Johnson as he signed the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act.
We didn’t realize, however, that King would soon be assassinated, along with a string of other civil rights activists prior to and after his death. The concept of “overcoming” at times felt crushing, heavy, daunting and illusive.
We must refocus the vision, because King’s dream that one day Black and white children would be free to play together, be educated together, live together, love together and be judged not by the “color of their skin, but by the content of their character” is still a work in progress.
While our neighborhoods and schools are no longer “legally” segregated, a drive around most cities will reveal that systems maintain separation between the races. Stark differences exist in the educational, housing, health care, banking, and policing systems and policies.
While Black people are not hanging from trees with nooses around their necks (in most places), a new kind of “lynching” persists in our nation. Systemic racism has empowered “segregationists” to maintain barriers that make it difficult for many to rise.
We must refocus the vision to take seriously the encumbrances to racial justice in society. We must cast down the fear to look at our society in the mirror, ask tough questions, pursue real solutions and take responsibility for the chasms in our own spheres of influence in order to repair the breaches.
Today’s activists continue to use strategies from the ’60s – marching, rallying and protesting. These tools remain effective to a degree, but we must revisit the strategy because additional approaches are necessary.
What often is missing from today’s methodologies to address injustice are the measures civil rights leaders used behind the scenes. They not only marched, but they had lawyers, community leaders and others who prepared letters, researched laws and legally confronted community and national leaders to press them to change unjust laws.
One of the powerful tools that young activists have employed today is the use of cell phone cameras.
The world would never have known about the egregious, horrific, inhumane tactics used by police officers when they knelt upon the neck and back of George Floyd, crushing the life out of him, if a 17-year-old girl hadn’t had the courage to use her cell phone to record the event.
We must combine the strategies of the past with modern day approaches to address the pervasive injustices today.
Another example of a modern-day strategy to raise awareness and create public outcry is the use of podcasts and social media, which are powerful tools for reaching younger generations. For example, rapper Meek Mill is using his platform to expose the insidious process employed by our nation’s probation system.
Many believe that the system is meant to give returning citizens an opportunity to reform. However, the probation system increases the likelihood that individuals, particularly people of color and the impoverished, remain trapped in the prison system.
Those on probation may be required to check in with their probation officer twice a week. That may not sound like a big deal, but what if your assigned probation officer is two hours away from your home?
What if you don’t have transportation? What if you cannot get time off from the job you barely were able to secure to meet up with your probation officer? If you miss the appointment, you can quickly be returned to prison.
Mill explains to his followers that individuals can be sent back to prison for simple, sometimes unavoidable, violations like not finding a job, being late to an appointment with a probation officer, or going to see your son or daughter at an out-of-state high school sporting event.
You can read more about his mission to reform the probation system on the Apple Podcast, “Meek Mill and Michael Rubin: Two Worlds Collide to Reform Probation.”
If we are to overcome all of the above challenges, then we must review the concept, re-focus the vision and revisit the strategy.
King believed that together we will “get there.” What about you and me? I say, “Let’s keep on keeping on – dismantling, tackling and kicking down systems of injustice!”
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series this week to call attention to Monday, January 16, 2023, as Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Senior pastor of Restoration Ministries of Greater Cleveland. She is the author of Beyond the Stained Glass Ceiling: Equipping and Encouraging Female Pastors.