King’s Legacy Lives on Strong

By Laneisha Butler, Youth Organizer

A legacy can never be forgotten when it influences our everyday lives. Proving that our youth are game changers for a revolution, it was a young Martin Luther King Jr. who started to tackle inequality and demand change. From his letter to the editor of one of Atlanta’s largest newspapers as a college student, to his movement leadership, collaboration with other activists, resilience with opposing agendas, and victories, King’s legacy has paved a way for our work to flourish and reminds us of how our resilience, people power, and Black excellence are essential tools for achieving our political dreams.

The recent 2017 elections in Virginia, Alabama, and Jackson, Mississippi showed the nation that the time is ripe for change as voters ushered in a new era of political leadership who stand up to racial injustice. But that change would not have come without the mobilization of millenials and Black voters (especially Black women) who, though they made up lower percentages of the electorate in both states, generated the highest turn out, helped swing the election results and subsequently decided the vote. These victories demonstrate the power our communities can have when we educate, organize, and mobilize our neighbors, to be active citizens by voting and ensuring their voices are heard. Black voters took advantage of a right that was fought for us by our ancestors including King, who along with other activists and organizers, were agitated by systematic oppression and denial of basic civil rights that prevented our people from voting. Back then -- and even now, folks were unjustly denied the right to vote due to literacy tests, property ownership requirements, polling taxes, deceit, intimidation, and violence. Motivated to bring this basic human right to Black communities, King and his peers influenced and witnessed the signage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, outlawing all undemocratic barriers for Black voters. Although newer efforts to disenfranchise Black and Brown voters still disrupt the mobility of our communities today, we are at the same time implementing strategies that increase civic engagement year-round.

Currently, in many ways, California is leading the way for comprehensive expansion of voter rights so that we can have a true democracy for the People, by the People. In an effort to expand the youth vote, Senate Bill 113 (Jackson, 2014) allows for people as young as 16-years-old to pre-register to vote in California. Though they still must wait until they turn 18 years old to vote, pre-registering them provides an important civic engagement vehicle that can start them on the path to become lifelong voters. To further empower our communities with the right to vote, AB 2466 (Weber, 2016) allows all citizens on probation (except for parole) and in county jails to vote. And now, we hope to expand this right a step further through an initiative to restore the right for all residents who are on parole and in state or federal prisons to vote, which we are working to get on the November ballot.

As Youth Organizer, I’ve been working on expanding the political involvement of millennials of color here in Oakland by registering young voters and educating them on the history of the struggle of our people to gain voting rights and in the importance of exercising this right. Having begun organizing my peers while in college, I deeply believe in the power of our youth and see their role in our state’s future to create change. As I organize in schools and around the community, I’m driven and inspired by Dr. King who began using his voice as a Sophomore in college, speaking out against inequality and demonstrating youth’s significant role in politics -- actions that later made him a respected and trusted leader. Inevitably, his leadership in Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) helped set up the first meeting of the Students Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). While honoring King’s leadership, they took the initiative to run their own voter registration campaign to increase the Black vote.

Following in King’s footsteps, young organizers like me today continue to fight to keep historical victories in place as well as urging new ones. Like King, we amplify our individual voices by building progressive movements to flex our collective people power. In that vein, here at Oakland Rising, we plan on winning big for working-class communities of color this year by expanding our base, engaging young people of color, and always looking back and building on what our ancestors, including Dr. King, fought so hard for. After all, “if we are to go forward, we must go back and rediscover those precious values” -- Dr. King.

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