Racially-charged murders, police brutality, Twitter debates on Hollywood's award nominations, hashtags that affirm the worth of the Black community and a Black President: is this what you thought 2016 would look like? While this is not an all-inclusive list, these are some of the highlights that paint the picture of the present.
Then comes Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a day where black people are supposed to celebrate how far we have come, and evaluate how much further we have to go. There is so much to be proud of, yet so much to be concerned about and so many to mourn. Activism in this new age calls for a new fight, a new plan, but most importantly, a new attitude.
This attitude should not be built on today's realities, but yesterday's victories. Time and time again, I feel the frustration from seeing another Black man laid out by a cop, or another college campus deal with racial tensions, but I am reminded to act from a positive place because of my predecessors.
This is what Charlayne Hunter-Gault, one of the two African-American students who desegregated the University of Georgia in 1961, taught me during our one-on-one for an exclusive interview in 2014. We talked about her experiences and her legacy, but not through eyes of rage. Mrs. Hunter-Gault spoke from a place of courage, and we could take a page out of her book as we stand up to fight our new battles today.
She kept her eyes on the prize. Mrs. Hunter-Gault told me that she would sometimes go three days before she heard a human voice. What may be worse than the name-calling and taunting is silence and being ignored. But this did not stop her focus: "I learned what I came here to learn." This paid off in big and small ways. She recalls the first day her Greek Culture professor, Dr. Bess, acknowledged her in class because he was so impressed by one of her essays. This was the first time her classmates approached her with positive things to say, and this was a day she remembers as her most impactful. This perseverance is something we must remember during a time where it may seem like we can't win, because the victory only comes to those who keep going.
She was there for others. After graduation, Mrs. Hunter-Gault went on to give fifty years to a trailblazing career in journalism, covering news in a way that reflected accuracy and uplifted the black community both in the States and in Africa. She learned that rioting and protesting wasn't her method of fighting - writing was. She credits her trials at UGA as the birth of her purpose: "Almost subconsciously, I made the decision that once I left here, I wanted to be sure that people got covered accurately...I wanted to write about people in a way that is recognizable to themselves." But her most proud accomplishment was that she did her best to be there for her children, and they noticed. This commitment to serve others in work and in personal life helped change lives, the true root of activism. If we remember why we do what we do, we'll do it better. If we do it with other's well-being in mind, we will do it to the best of our ability.
She had help. I was relieved when Mrs. Hunter-Gault opened up about how uneasy her journey was, because she made it seem like it was a piece a cake. She, too, needed a mentor: "...you are inevitably going to have frustrations. You're going to have good days and bad days. And what you don't want to happen is to get depressed or distressed, or take something that's gone wrong and really let that bother you." She advised that everyone find a mentor and learn from them. In this modern journey to justice, there's a lot that we may not understand, especially since we were not raised in a blatantly racist society. Mentorship may be the key to coming up with the next-best demonstration that changes a law, an event or just one person that could point us in the right direction. Mentorship might make the difference between giving up and seeing things through.
She took risks. She emphasized that you have to be willing to take risks in order for anything to change in life. All these points can be summed perfectly by one of her favorite quotes:
"When you get to the end of all the light you know and it's time to step into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing that one of two things shall happen: either you will be given something solid to stand on, or you will be taught how to fly." ― Edward Teller
This MLK Day, even if it's simply based on the victories of our past, let us choose to believe that we will fly.