For the first fifteen minutes of my daughter's school day, I read to her in her kindergarten classroom. Since the New Year, her requests have been to read about Martin Luther King Jr., Bessie Smith, and Nelson Mandela.
These are books that she can find right by the front door in her classroom. There has been progress from the days when children were separated by legally enforced segregation. Yet, each time I read one of those children's books I also thought about what was included and what was left out. For example, the book that couples pictures with the words of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech left this out:
"This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy."
As well as this:
"There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, 'When will you be satisfied?' We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality."
For too long, the narrative of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life has not reflected his whole self and the radical vision he had for the world. And so on Martin Luther King Jr. Day on January 18th, I along with 23 other people got arrested while stopping traffic on the Bay Bridge.
We honored his true legacy, called attention to the ongoing "unspeakable horrors of police brutality," and expressed dissatisfaction with the state of the cities we live in and the treatment of Black people within them. The protest was led by Black.Seed, a Black Queer Liberation collective.
The collective statement of the group read in part:
"Over the last few years, we have seen San Francisco and Oakland destroyed by police murders, rising housing costs, rapid gentrification, and apathetic city officials. Last year, we saw dozens of police murders throughout the Bay Area; since June of 2015 in Oakland alone there have been eight Black men murdered by police. Today Black.Seed celebrates and honors the radical legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr."
Each time as I sat with my daughter, I thought about what it means to celebrate his legacy. I nearly cried as I read and reflected on the sacrifices Dr. King and others made so that I might sit with her. I nearly cried, overcome with an underlying sense fear for her and the other little Black children in her classroom.
All of what I do at the Ella Baker Center is oriented toward ending the school-to-prison pipeline. It is oriented toward advancing a Truth and Reinvestment agenda; an agenda that forces us to reckon with how our country's long history of racial injustice has created a criminal justice system that targets black, brown, and poor people, and demands reinvestment in the communities that have been most harmed.
This agenda will result in the cashing of the "bad check" Dr. King described in his speech. He "refused to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation." And yet despite our efforts, I am often afraid that it is not enough; that we are not enough.
At those times, I think about a quote by Audre Lorde that hangs on the wall in my office: "when I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid."
As I stood with my feet on that bridge and my waist chained to two cars, I thought about a children's book that recounted the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. After marching with Dr. King in Selma, Alabama, he said "I felt my legs were praying." He knew what Dr. King did, that we can't simply dream of a more just world, we must act to bring it into being.