Saturday, January 25, 2020
January 25-26, 2020: 21st Century Voices of Civil Rights
[For this year’s MLK week series, I’ve highlighted under-remembered figures, histories, and stories that can expand our collective memories of the Civil Rights Movement. Leading up to this special weekend post on 21st century voices!]
On five figures helping carry the legacies and conversations forward.
1) Alicia Garza: I said much of what I’d want to say here in that hyperlinked post, but will add that of course the #BlackLivesMatter movement is not just about individuals or leaders, no more than the Civil Rights Movement was. Yet individual figures can nonetheless serve as inspirational models, for the best of what a movement represents and for the kinds of activism, leadership, and thinking that embody the best of American identity and community. To my mind Garza does and is all those things, and then some.
2) Tressie McMillan Cottom: I don’t imagine it’ll be a surprise that I think writers and public scholars can also be civil rights leaders. But they really can, more than ever in this era of social media and multimedia conversations and communities, and an inspiring case in point is Cottom: for her black feminist podcast (co-hosted with Roxane Gay, who could certainly occupy this spot as well) and her Twitter account just as much as for her acclaimed and groundbreaking autoethnographic and sociological books. In all those ways, Cottom’s voice and words offer vital guidance, on civil rights and so many other issues, through our 21st century maze.
3) Ava Duvernay: Not just because she made (to my mind) the best film yet about the Civil Rights Movement; nor just because she made (to my mind) the best TV show yet about race, justice and community in late 20th and early 21st century America. Each of those cultural works would certainly merit Duvernay a spot on this list, but I would argue that it is really her amazing support for fellow artists, filmmakers, and cultural voices that makes Duvernay not just a civil rights artist but an activist and leader as well. Pop culture and mass media are, now more than ever, key battlegrounds in the fight for civil rights, and I’d follow Duvernay into any such conflict.
4) Jennifer Gunter: Before these last two figures, a disclaimer: I would never argue that the movements for other civil rights are identical, or even necessarily parallel, to the ongoing one for African American civil rights. But as figures from this week’s series like Bayard Rustin and Lillian Smith (among so many others) remind us, the fights for justice and equity around issues of sexuality, gender, and so many others are at the very least deeply interconnected with those of race, and are in any case vital civil rights fights on their own terms. In recent months, Gunter has emerged (on Twitter and beyond) as one of the most vocal and vital voices on issues of gender, sexuality, and sex. I can’t wait to read her book The Vagina Bible and continue learning from her expertise and activism.
5) José Antonio Vargas: That’s just one of many posts in which I’ve highlighted Vargas’ inspiring and courageous voice, writing, and activism. To be honest, it feels a bit as if his voice had receded a bit in recent years (I could be totally wrong on that and welcome other perspectives as always!), which is doubly frustrating as I can’t imagine a moment where he and all he does and supports are more needed. Again, every issue and movement is distinct, but to me the fight for undocumented immigrants is one of the central civil rights battles of the 21st century. In that, as in so many other conversations, Vargas remains an essential voice and leader.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other contemporary voices you’d highlight?