Philly social justice advocates mine lessons from MLK’s legacy

Listen 70:28

Wednesday marks 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was fatally shot in Memphis, Tenn. A single bullet ended his life, but decades later, social justice advocates say his message — and his struggle for equality — live on.

“When it comes to fighting for justice, everything is recycled,” said Asa Khalif, who leads Black Lives Matter Pennsylvania, an organization that fights for racial equality and against police brutality.

“The Civil Rights Movement, it was labeled the Civil Rights movement,” he said. “But today you may call it Black Lives Matter. It’s still under the umbrella of liberation — the entire liberation — of black and brown people.”

Khalif was one of five social justice advocates who gathered at WHYY Monday evening to consider King’s legacy. The event, hosted by WHYY and The New Conversation on Race and Ethnicity or NewCore, is part of the 80/80 Conversations series that’s been unfolding across the Philadelphia region since mid-January to mark the 50 years since King’s death.

A panel of social justice advocates on stage at WHYY discuss parallels between today’s movements and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work during the Civi Rights Era. (Aaron Moselle/WHYY)

Two components of King’s organizing efforts — uniting groups working towards the same goals and getting young people involved in the movement — were noted as being critical to bringing about positive social change in the 21st century.

“Dr. King was 26 when he lead the Montgomery (bus boycott), Ralph Abernathy was 27, 28. Rosa Parks was in her 30s, (U.S. Rep.) John Lewis was 19 when he started on the Freedom Rides,” said the Rev. J. Wendell Mapson, Jr. who leads Monumental Baptist Church in West Philadelphia.

Tamir Harper, by far the youngest panelist, said getting students like him involved isn’t easy, but it’s not impossible. Harper was one of thousands of students across the Philadelphia region who participated in last month’s National School Walkout to protest gun violence.

In some cases, Harper said it may be simply a matter of introducing young people to activists and advocates their age, so that it doesn’t all seem so abstract, so disconnected from their day-to-day lives.

“It’s that one thing that will allow that person to get that spark. It’s that one interaction. It’s the one experience. But it’s the one opportunity,” said Harper, 17, a senior at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia and co-founder of UrbEd, a nonprofit that fights for better quality schools.

WHYY’s Annette John-Hall, who moderated the panel, asked the Rev. Abbey Tennis about how to get white people involved in causes that affect the lives of African-Americans, Latinos, and other people of color.

Tennis, who is white, said the first step is to acknowledge that every issue tied to racial inequality — from poverty to violence — affects people of all races.

“To pretend that there’s an issue that isn’t my issue is being false to myself,” she said. “To pretend that this issue is not more my responsibility than my colleagues of color is absurd because I am the one who is benefitting from it every day.”

“Part of what my job is,” she added, “is to not seek first to be a leader in the movement, but seek first to listen to people of color and follow their leadership and lift up their voices whenever possible.”

Nijmie Dzurinko with the Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign was also part of Monday night’s discussion. She said her work is a continuation of King’s own Poor People’s Campaign, launched in December 1967, four months before he died. King and his fellow organizers’ goal was to push Congress to pass laws that would improve the lives of people of all races living in poverty, including a guaranteed basic income and more affordable housing.

Fifty years later, Dzurinko said economic inequality is still one of America’s most daunting issues, which is why organizers, including the Rev. William Barber, are relaunching the campaign on May 14. A march on Washington, D.C. is planned in June.

Dzurinko said the first phase has two goals: to dispel the notion that poor people only have themselves to blame, and to empower them to join forces to fight for systemic change.

“This movement isn’t just about one leader who can be taken out,” she said. “It’s about building up the leadership and power of lots and lots of people.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.