09/30/2014 04:10 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2014

From Righteous Indignation to Collective Mobilization: This Can Be Our 'Ferguson Fall'

As I speak with many of you, hear you on talk shows, and read your comments and views in blogs and on social media, it is clear to me that you share my deep frustration about the killing of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teen who was shot and killed by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, in August, sparking days of protest in the St. Louis suburb -- years of pain and suffering manifested in rebellion and rage. As we await the outcome of the grand jury deliberation about whether to indict Wilson, the unrest continues -- violence broke out again last week in response to the burning of a memorial to Brown.

While I can't predict the outcome in the case of Brown's killing nor that of the tragic death of Eric Gardner after police put him in a chokehold, I can say without fear of contradiction that this senseless loss of life in the black community will continue unless there are different responses that include changes in public policies, attitudes, and social conditions.

I support the protest marches. I support the demonstrations and speak-outs. I am pleased that President Obama responded in such a public and forthright manner to the situation in Ferguson, and I was encouraged by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's visit to Ferguson and the ensuing Justice Department investigation of the local police department. However, we have witnessed far too many similar situations in which momentary outrage has not been sustained and justice has not been served. Much more has to be done.

Following the killing of Trayvon Martin, we became far more aware of the draconian "Stand Your Ground" law. But, aside from the gallant efforts of Martin's parents, where are we in the fight to change the law? Where are the leaders who will forcefully advocate for the necessary changes?

Likewise, in the aftermath of Brown's death, the conditions confronting African Americans in Ferguson have become more apparent -- the need for increased voter registration and turnout, as well as a range of social injustices of unacceptable magnitude, including unemployment and underemployment, poverty, health disparities, education inequity, and police misconduct. What will be done to address these failures of our system?

Community leadership and ownership are key. The situation in Ferguson calls for local leadership, with external support and resources, to take the reigns to educate, mobilize, and empower the community to bring about true systemic change.

I personally experienced the power of this model of community engagement in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, during height of the civil rights struggle in the 1960s, when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) came into Birmingham at the request of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, led by the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth.

Under then-existing Jim Crow laws, black people were subjected to all forms of racial discrimination and degradation, including the denial of the right to vote. My pastor, Rev. Shuttlesworth, and his wife were violently beaten while trying to integrate a public school. Their home, three blocks from my house, was bombed, followed by several more attacks and bombings of our church. Justifiable rage and rebellion from blacks began to surface through various acts of retaliation. With the SCLC and local leadership, we engaged in non-violent protests and marches. I was one of the hundreds of youth who marched, spending six days in jail.

Continuous marches and demonstrations, fueled by our sense of purpose and determination, led to serious discussions with local business leaders and elected officials. These early experiences helped to shape my thinking and approach to making a difference and creating substantive changes in civil rights, voting rights, equal opportunity laws in employment and housing, and other reforms that redress inequality and human rights violations.

A clear understanding of our past coupled with the advanced communications technology we have today can be powerful tools in advancing our collective efforts to move forward as a society.

Let us look back at that transformative, defining moment of the historic Mississippi Summer to guide us toward a better future. Let there be a "Ferguson Fall," where we put a plan in place to ensure that every eligible person is registered to vote and educated on the importance of doing so. Volunteers, including local, civic, community, business, clergy, and fraternal leaders, can be mobilized to provide training for conducting effective voter registration and education campaigns. This would be one critical step toward greater community empowerment.

In addition to voter registration and education, let us take a more in-depth look at the existing social conditions; identify local leaders who may be taking actions or be prepared and motivated to do so; and support and help to develop an action plan. Again, as in my hometown, there must be strategic, collective action to bring about sustainable change.

There are many "Fergusons" in our nation where collective community action is needed. We are faced with a choice: Will our nation continue to simply stand by and wait for the next tragedy to happen, or will we "listen to the voices of the unheard" and give support to the people of Ferguson to transform their communities? This effort must start somewhere -- why can't Ferguson finally be the catalyst? We have a collective responsibility to move beyond expressions of justifiable outrage and anger and righteous indignation to actions that address the civil, social, and human rights of the people of Ferguson, Missouri, and beyond.