Don’t Just Look Back for Civil Rights Leaders – Look Around

If the phrase ‘civil rights’ brings to mind 1960’s black-and-white photos, you, like many Americans, are ignoring the present even as you selectively remember the past. Today’s battles – over community safety and policing, over voting rights (which incredibly are again under siege), and over LGBTQ rights, are led by new Black voices speaking out on TikTok and Substacks, more than sermons and pulpits. When it comes to civil rights, we can’t only look back, we need to look around. 

Today, on this anniversary of the March on Washington, I remember the determination of my father, a Florida civil rights activist, and his contemporaries, who led groundbreaking 1960s marches and swim-ins. That history fortifies and informs us which is why authoritarians seek to erase it. That same deep-rooted commitment to freedom I see echoed among extraordinary leaders all around us who bring a fresh approach to pushing justice forward now. We must remember our history and celebrate new faces making history today.

When I think of current civil rights leaders, I’m struck by the brilliant, unstoppable LaTosha Brown, one of those most responsible for the survival of our multi-racial democracy through her voting rights work. LaTosha co-founded Black Voters Matter and is the driving force behind community organizing efforts criss-crossing the South. She challenges us with her passion and moral clarity. Long before the nation paid attention to the South, Brown proclaimed that the path to the multiracial democracy we’re building must be rooted in the Southern states, “We know a thing or two about outwitting authoritarian racists.”

Another powerful Black woman challenging the status quo is Alicia Garza, principal of Black Futures Lab and author of The Purpose of Power. And the originator of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Undaunted by death threats and online doxxing, she reminds us that protesting and Black voting is not enough – we must put policy-making power in Black hands to drive real change. Her Black to the Future Public Policy Institute is training cadres of Black leaders to help create positive change in our communities – whether the issue is community safety and policing, civil rights, health care or economic rights. She has taught us that, “Organizing isn’t just about protesting injustice. It’s about organizing a coalition of the people who believe in a world where we all have freedom and joy.” And she is doing exactly that. 

Sent to law school by her southern bayou community Colette Pichon Battle, founder of the Gulf Coast Center on Law and Poverty and partner at Taproot Earth returned to her community to fight big oil and gas companies’ devastating impacts on the very survival of her coastal community. Rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina she witnessed the trauma that comes from loss as well as the economic losses experienced by already depressed and disenfranchised communities. “Climate change isn’t the problem,” she’s been known to say, “the problem is a system that has systematically extracted wealth and agency from the many for the benefit of a few.” Taproot Earth is laying out a strategy for coal mining country in Appalachia to organize alongside gas refining communities in Louisiana. They have laid out a plan for collectively addressing the worst impacts of climate by building a more equitable economy. 

Facing down the twin scourges of racism and transphobia is the brave, brilliant Imara Jones, a Black trans leader on Time’s 100 Most Influential People of 2023 whose work “loudly and proudly” asserts the civil rights of trans Americans to thrive. At a time when anti-trans attacks are well-funded and increasing, her TransLash media platform provides a powerful explainer. Scrupulous research uncovers the overlap between far-right Christian nationalist funders of anti-trans screeds and legislation turning back women’s rights, curtailing abortion health care, and suppressing voting rights.

The Libra Foundation's work spearheading philanthropic support for today’s civil rights leaders gives me an up-close look at their struggles and their strengths. They are every bit the measure of their own moment, and their vision has profoundly inspired me and the dozen other funders teaming up to make multi-year investments to resource their work.  As Dr. King said, “A true leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.” The civil rights leaders of today are standing on the shoulders of greats, while they bring our generation’s dreams to technicolor life.

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