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50 Years After MLK: Civil Rights Now And Then

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now it's time for the Barbershop. That's where we ask interesting people to talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. This week, April 4 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the civil rights leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. When Dr. King was assassinated, there was a profound sadness - not just for the loss of King himself, but also because some people thought it might be the end of the movement he led.

It turns out that was not true. Other movements and other leaders have risen. So, 50 years later, we decided to speak with some of those new leaders about the civil rights movement today - what their struggles are and how they see the future. Joining us are Nicole Austin-Hillery. She is the executive director of the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch. That's the human rights organization that operates around the world. She formerly ran the Washington office of the Brennan Center for Justice, which advocates for policies that promote democracy, such as voting rights. She's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Welcome.

NICOLE AUSTIN-HILLERY: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Maya Wiley is joining us from her home office in Brooklyn, N.Y. She's the senior vice president for social justice at The New School. She's also a professor of urban policy there. Professor Wiley, thank you so much for joining us.

MAYA WILEY: Thank you.

MARTIN: And last but certainly not least, Tiffany Dena Loftin heads the youth and college division of the NAACP. We caught up with her in San Diego, where she is traveling. Tiffany, thank you so much for joining us.

TIFFANY DENA LOFTIN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And Maya, I'm going to start with you because you are literally a second-generation activist. Your father, George Wiley, was a famous activist in the New York area advocating for the rights of poor people, white and black. He was constantly being arrested when you were growing up.

WILEY: (Laughter).

MARTIN: And seeing all that, what made you want to do this?

WILEY: I think the fact that I grew up very much in a household that prioritized the marathon, not the sprint - recognizing that we've actually been struggling for full inclusion in American society for 400 years - not just for the period of time that was the height of the civil rights movement in the '50s and '60s. And that struggle continues today.

MARTIN: Nicole, what about you? You are a lawyer. You come from a big law firm background. I mean, you could be doing that. What made you decide to switch course in the same way, frankly, that Michelle Obama did, which is to leave the - sort of the practice of law in the big law firm setting and dedicate yourself to this kind of nonprofit work?

AUSTIN-HILLERY: Well, Michel, I'm one of those - I call them weirdos - who knew at the age of 13 that I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer. I grew up in public housing. And growing up in that kind of community - it was a wonderful, nurturing community, but it was a community that was very clear to me had been disenfranchised. And that colored and framed for me everything that I wanted to do and how I wanted to make my contributions.

MARTIN: OK. Tiffany, what about you? What's your motivation for taking on this role? I think people forget, though, how young a lot of that famous generation of civil rights leaders was. I mean, Martin Luther King was, what, 26 when he was leading the Montgomery bus boycott? But I think - you know, in your, you know, era, I think a lot of people aren't used to seeing young people in these kinds of prominent role. So what about you? What made you want to do this?

LOFTIN: So I grew up in a household where my mother was a single mother, low income, welfare. I lived in a shelter for a few years. And my mom told me, if I'm going to do one thing to make her happy, I have to graduate college. So I went to the University of California Santa Cruz, a historically white university.

And while I was in Sacramento one day lobbying against tuition increases, I got a phone call from one of my really close friends back at campus who said that someone had hung a noose on my campus. And then, all of a sudden, the attack of the color of my skin on my campus became a problem that chose me. I didn't choose those issues.

And ever since then, ever since that day, I have been organizing and fighting for, not only my community and black folks, but people of color and young people specifically. For the last six years, I've organized and done work around only racial justice and economic justice.

MARTIN: You know, one of the reasons I was interested in talk with this group is that we were looking back at the pictures of the Big Six civil rights organizations that were credited with pulling off the March on Washington. Now, we know for a fact that there were many women playing critical roles in organizing all of these civil rights campaigns - people like Ella Baker, people like Diane Nash, Fannie Lou Hamer, you know, of course. But they were hardly ever in the picture. And I'm just curious about the fact that so many women are now leading organizations like this. I just wonder why you think that is. I don't know, Nicole, do you want to start? Do you have a theory?

AUSTIN-HILLERY: Sure. As you just articulated, we stand on the shoulders of greatness. All of those women - Diane Nash, Ella Baker - we have been taught by those women to lead movements, and we are really just following suit in terms of what we have learned. We know that it is up to us to help protect our communities, to build our communities, to advance them. And we are stepping into that at this moment.

MARTIN: Let's talk, though, about what your focus is. I mean, Tiffany, do you want to start? How do - what do you see as your priorities right now?

LOFTIN: I'm making sure that I'm building real power by providing training for young folks on the ground so that they can understand how to impact change in legislation through elections and also through direct action organizing. And then the other piece that I really focus on is - and y'all are going to laugh - but really, ending white supremacy. And if we can stay focused on what somebody said earlier - the longtime marathon, that this is not a sprint - that we have to remember that the world that we live in right now does not have to look this way.

I mean, men - I'm going to cut straight to the chase - men have been telling the story and narratives of our civil rights movements for a very long time. I was in Tennessee for the last week in Memphis, and a lot of spaces that I went to, it was mostly men that were telling the stories and reminiscing about what happened 50 years ago. And I said, where are the young people and where are the women? Like, we have women who are leading, working and have always been at the forefront of this movement.

MARTIN: Maya, what about you? I mean, interestingly, a lot of your work focuses on technology. In Dr. King's day, technology wasn't - I don't know that it was a civil rights issue on anybody's radar. So talk a little bit more about what you see as the priorities today.

WILEY: Well, it's a really important question because actually, Dr. King actually talked about automation and its impact in black community well before he was assassinated. So it's actually been a civil rights issue for a long time.

But I want to go back to this point about black women's leadership because it's critically important. Black women have always led in the racial justice movement - always. And one of the things that my father did that I really so respected and learned from was, in the Ella Baker tradition, he organized black women on welfare to be the board of directors of the grassroots organizing coalition that he helped to create - so much so that they were enabled to fire him if they so choose. And at one point, they chose to.

And that actually is about a kind of popular democracy that it's an - that's an Ella Baker legacy and absolutely a legacy that we are seeing played out by women of color leadership, black women of leadership today.

MARTIN: Nicole, what's the priority for you right now?

AUSTIN-HILLERY: You know, Michel, in order for us to be more successful in protecting the rights of black and brown people and other people of color in this country, we have to raise this issue beyond the confines of the United States. We have to take this issue to the world stage. It is not enough for people in the United States to get angry about this. We have to have other partners supporting us and getting behind us and putting pressure on the systems within the United States to make changes. So that's something that's very important. And I also want to say, Tiffany, we're not laughing when you talk about white supremacy being an issue.

LOFTIN: (Laughter).

AUSTIN-HILLERY: I mean, let's be real here. That's what Michel forces us to do - to be real.

MARTIN: Thanks.

AUSTIN-HILLERY: The issue of white supremacy is one that is utterly important. We have seen that rear its ugly head in the wake of the 2016 election, and we have to deal with that.

MARTIN: Well, that leads me to the final question I had for you all today. We're in a time when authoritarian regimes are rising all over the world. And, you know, in the United States, many of the issues that are so associated with Dr. King people are still fighting about. I mean, they're still fighting about access to the ballot. They're still fighting about what fundamental fairness means. So I'm not going to ask each of you if you're optimistic or pessimistic because I've never met an activist who wasn't an optimist because how else could you do it if you weren't?

WILEY: Or a possiblist is the word I...

AUSTIN-HILLERY: Or a possibilist.

LOFTIN: I like that, Maya.

MARTIN: But I am interested in what you're optimistic about. And since, Nicole, you started that question, what are you optimistic about? I mean, at a time when many of the people who do the work that you do feel that they're really fighting to maintain gains that they have achieved as opposed to advancing to the next level?

AUSTIN-HILLERY: I'm optimistic that the circle is widening in terms of the people who now consider themselves activists. You know, I have since 2016, since that election, met so many people who said, I never cared about politics, or I never cared about these issues. Those are folks who are no longer just sitting in their homes watching the news and not being engaged.

MARTIN: Maya, what about you?

WILEY: Well, I have to agree with that. And I think it's also that we are seeing new formations of organizing and organizing leadership. It's incredibly important that we have our historic institutions like the NAACP, like the Urban League.

It's also extremely important and has always been in our history that we have decentralized that leadership - that we have work that is being pioneered by folks on the ground in communities, representing those communities, becoming leaders in those communities like we've seen through the movement for black lives, like we have seen in the women's march movement, like we have seen with DREAMers. That is an incredibly important legacy for leadership because leadership is not just conferred. It's taken.

MARTIN: Tiffany, what about you? Final thought from you?

LOFTIN: I'm optimistic that this work that we have in front of us we're going to continue to do, and that our folks are going to win, that we're going to follow through and we're not going to be distracted and that young people in ways that we have not seen before will merge the conversations and understand the intersectionalities to get concrete change.

WILEY: That's Tiffany Dena Loftin of the NAACP. We were also joined by Nicole Austin-Hillery of Human Rights Watch and Maya Wiley of The New School. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

WILEY: Thank you.

LOFTIN: Thank you for having us.

AUSTIN-HILLERY: Thank you, Michel.

(SUNDBITE OF THE OLYMPIANS' "APOLLO'S MOOD")

MARTIN: Coretta Scott King was often referred to as the first lady of civil rights. Tomorrow, we'll hear how she came to be seen as a civil rights leader in her own right just days after her husband's death.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CORETTA SCOTT KING: I ask the question, how many men must die before we can really have a free and true and peaceful society?

(SOUNDBITE OF THE OLYMPIANS' "APOLLO'S MOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.