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Southern California leaders see Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy in Black Lives Matter movement

Two weeks after scores of people of all races flooded downtown San Bernardino to protest police brutality and systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd‘s death, local school board President Gwen Dowdy-Rodgers and her colleagues did something new.

Representing more than 47,000 students, as well as administrators, teachers, staffers and parents on June 16, 2020, San Bernardino City Unified board members took turns reading portions of a resolution into the record.

The declaration?

That the county’s largest school district was “unequivocally” anti-racist, and that it condemns all acts of racism.

Now days before the nation marks the 36th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Dowdy-Rodgers and other Southern California leaders and activists are reflecting on the connection between the late civil rights icon’s lasting call for social justice and the summer’s Black Lives Matter movement and subsequent efforts to change policy in the region.



‘Send a message’

Three days after she and her San Bernardino school board colleagues condemned all acts of racism, brutality, racial profiling and the excessive use of force by law enforcement, Dowdy-Rodgers was part of a contingent of community members to implore San Bernardino County leaders to take a similar stand.

“It was very important for us to send the message that we are very serious about raising social justice issues and equity issues,” Dowdy-Rodgers said, “because policy is something we can point to when things are not the way they should be.”

Having met twice previously with faith leaders, activists and members of the Black community, the Board of Supervisors on June 23 declared racism a public health crisis.

Soon after, cities across the region adopted similar resolutions acknowledging racism exists and condemning it outright, and educators began exploring expanded ethnic studies programs and measures to create inclusive learning environments.

Such actions are a direct result of the mass protests that spread nationally after the death of Floyd, a Black man who died in Minneapolis police custody after an officer knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, said Darrin Johnson, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Inland Empire. But the 38-year-old said he will not be satisfied until concrete change – in schools, in government, in policing – is achieved.

“The protests showed that when pressure is put to government, (officials) will be forced to act,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, as fall went through, our momentum was lost and I feel politicians were less compelled to take those kinds of actions.

“I feel like the people we have now in positions of power, especially career politicians, are too used to playing political games,” Johnson added. “That’s how they stay in power and continue to do the things they do. They throw us a crumb and are convinced they’re doing stuff for us.

“We need to hold everyone’s feet to the fire to keep this momentum going.”

Linking generations

As Dowdy-Rodgers reflects on summer 2020, what makes her most proud of the Black Lives Matter movement and subsequent policy discussions and changes is the bond now established between those with first-hand memories of King and those who’ve come to admire him through textbooks, biographies and iconic video clips.

“We are connecting the generations that had been disconnected,” Dowdy-Rodgers said. “Those who were part of or close to that time when civil rights was just coming to the forefront and those marching and fighting got us to where we are today. Now, we’re handing the baton over to this generation, this young generation, and saying ‘We want to support you.’”

Activist Kayla Booker, 26, is a small business owner and founder of The B.L.A.C.K. Collective, supporting black businesses and creators in the Inland Empire. (Photo courtesy of Kayla Booker)

Kayla Booker, a college student activist in Riverside, said King’s work and legacy have emboldened younger generations, decades later, to stand up in today’s social and political climates.

The 26-year-old who participated in a number of demonstrations and rallies in Riverside and across the Inland Empire said more young people of color need to be involved in their local communities and in leadership roles.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” Booker said, paraphrasing King’s 1965 sermon in Selma, Alabama. “If we’re not sitting at the table, then who is hearing our voices and concerns?”

Resilience, Booker said, is something she learned from King. She is president and founder of The B.L.A.C.K. Collective, a group of young Black leaders in Riverside working to uplift the area through events, community involvement, mentorship and entrepreneurship.

“We’re tired of not being heard, of feeling alone,” Booker said. “We’re the only African American group (in this area), run by youth, and no one has reached out to us about our concerns. Not the mayor or sheriff. They want to go out and take pictures with us, but they don’t ask us how we can help, what we can do, to really make a difference.

“At some point, you’re going to hear us.”

With help from three friends, Sage Hill School graduate Jackie Ni built, an online nexus for procuring and distributing PPE (more than 375,000 pieces). Then came, to facilitate requests and donations to organizers and activists involved in social justice protests. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

With college campuses offering only virtual classes this fall due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Sage Hill High School graduate Jackie Ni decided to postpone his freshman year of college to spend his free time addressing economic and social justice issues.

At first, that meant organizing other teens to secure thousands of pieces of personal protective equipment, or PPE, for health care workers at the onset of the pandemic. But after Floyd’s death, Ni pivoted to supporting Black Lives Matter organizers.

As a result, the Irvine teen formed the nonprofit

By the end of September, the group had raised a few thousand dollars to help pay for such necessities as permit fees and supplies of water, along with shipping more than 3,000 protective masks to protesters in California, New York and parts of the Midwest.

Ni’s support of the Black Lives Matter movement segued into forming a youth-led political action committee, called MemePAC, with three Orange County friends his age — Theodore Horn, Jason Yu and Vera Kong. In school, the 18-year-old had learned of King and the civil rights movement; but his own research this past year led to a deeper understanding of the economic equality King sought the last years of his life.

Ni, who plans to study public policy or political science in college, and perhaps run for office someday, sees King’s legacy in the passion and dedication that he and other young people show for systemic change.

“It definitely carries on what Martin Luther King set out to do, tackling issues in a logical way, in a peaceful way.”

Miranda Sheffield, 35, is a cultural arts commissioner in Pomona. (Courtesy of Miranda Sheffield)

‘We have to work’

On the heels of a nationwide call for social change, King’s message echoes louder than ever before, said Miranda Sheffield, a cultural arts commissioner in Pomona who helped organize demonstrations there over the summer.

“With everything that happened at the protests and the (Jan. 6) riot at the (U.S.) Capitol,” Sheffield said, “we need to listen to King’s words and demand change.”

New 5th Ward San Bernardino City Councilman Ben Reynoso is sworn in at San Bernardino City Hall on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. (Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

San Bernardino City Councilman Ben Reynoso, who was in Mississippi with family when protesters began marching in communities across the nation following Floyd’s death, said he understood why so many felt compelled to unite.

“There’d been multiple times in my life when I’ve seen Black and brown people killed at the hands of police, or die in police custody,” said Reynoso. “When I was with family, I was reaching for understanding as an individual. For me, I had to be out near my mother and surrounded by people who understood and could express their emotions.

“What you saw this summer,” he added, “was a collection of people who couldn’t express their emotions in silence. They needed to express it publicly.”

The summer’s activism has a direct link to the civil rights movement King spearheaded in the 1950s and ’60s, Reynoso said.

“Martin Luther King understood narrative,” he said. “That’s why he was willing, and the young organizers around him were willing, to do things like sit in diners where people of color weren’t allowed, to be beat up on live TV. Because they knew America and the world wouldn’t understand what they were going through without seeing it.

Naomi Rainey-Pierson, the longtime president of Long Beach’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said she applauds the work that younger people have been doing this past year, but added that protests alone won’t bring change.

“We have to not just stand up and scream, shout, holler and march when there is an outcry,” she said. “We have to continually march, we have to continually stand up, we have to continue using our voice. We have to stop pitting one group against the other.

“We have to work for equality and justice.”

In this file photo, Naomi Rainey-Pierson receives her honorary doctoral degree at Cal Sate Long Beach at the commencement for College of Liberal Arts on Wednesday, May 22, 2019. (Photo courtesy of Sean DuFrene, photographer for Cal State Long Beach)

Rainey-Pierson, a Black woman who grew up going to segregated schools in Mississippi, said injustice and inequality is nothing new, but that in order to follow King’s visions and goals, people must come together.

“I commend all of the young people, of all colors and hues, marching, speaking, fighting and reaching out,” she said. “But we have to speak collectively for all: not just one race, not just one gender, but it has to be for all mankind because there’s an old saying, ‘For whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.’

That, Rainey-Pierson said, is what Martin Luther King stood for.

Source: Orange County Register

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