Where Is the Next MLK?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
It's unclear if the world has a consensus-building figure like MLK — or whether it needs one at all.
By Charu Sudan Kasturi and Nick Fouriezos
Inequality. Sexuality. Race. Gender. These and a host of other societal issues are being openly discussed like never before in America. Still, many wonder why there aren’t more consensus-building leaders emerging to take on those challenges — a Martin Luther King Jr., for the modern age. Today’s Daily Dose dives into what has changed since the civil rights movement of MLK, who may be poised to follow in his footsteps or whether anyone should even try. By the end, we hope to get a bit closer to resetting America. Read on.
Fragmented Attention. In MLK’s day, the struggle for equality was largely one of Black Americans fighting for equal rights with a white majority that hadn’t (still hasn’t) fully grappled with the lingering trauma of slavery. Of course, a number of other marginalized groups were also fighting for equality, from the LGBTQ community to Asian Americans and others. But the black-and-white framing condensed the struggle into a single cause, and the media anointed its hero: MLK. Today, with social media and TikTok competing with nightly news for people’s attention, it’s hard for any single cause or leader to stand above the rest.
Shared Causes. The internet changed the media and gave every activist a megaphone, lending all of their causes a sense of urgency. The recognition of a shared struggle has given rise to movements and alliances, both old and new — from trans rights to a budding millennial-led push for workers’ rights. Such blossoming requires diversified leadership, argues Chi Ossé, a 23-year-old queer Black organizer from Brooklyn, who’s running for New York City Council. “The thing about progressive ideology, or democratic socialist ideology, is it’s not specific to one generation of people. It encompasses the working class, Black people, brown people, trans people of color, the most vulnerable who are also upholding our societies,” Ossé told OZY.
Unity Goes MIA. As protests erupted across America and the world following the death of George Floyd, one city stood out as a surprising breakaway. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, which has employed many of the same protest tactics as Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters, avoided agitations they feared would alienate their then-ally in the White House, President Donald Trump. The response reflected a broader global pattern: While there were international protests, there has been no broad underlying unity of movements like we saw in earlier decades. MLK’s movement was a part of an international struggle against colonialism, imperialism and apartheid. That common purpose meant that the movement drew inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent strategy in India, and energy from freedom struggles in Africa. That contextual glue that bound global movements is now gone.
picking up the mantle
Chi Ossé. He rejects the MLK-esque title, and that is kind of the point: The next generation of leaders are less attached to hero worship. Ossé attended his first protest after Floyd’s death and has since founded the Gen Z activist group “Warriors in the Garden,” using pacifist principles to reject police violence and call for reform. The son of hip-hop podcaster Combat Jack says he never expected to run for office, but the transition has come naturally: “Anyone can do it as long as they have a vision, a voice and are listening to the needs and wants of their community.”
Qween Jean. Being a leader means showing up, and this New York City trans activist has done that in spades, leading weekly BLM protests this past year. The South Florida native has worked as a stage and film costume designer in the Big Apple. Her “Stonewall Protests,” co-founded with Joel Rivera, use the site of the historic Stonewall Inn to mount Black liberation events. Her “artivism” proves that creativity can drive social change. “What became clear to me is that the two cannot exist on their own,” she told Gay City News. “They actually have to work in tandem.”
Stacey Abrams. This daughter of Mississippi preachers, whose Georgia gubernatorial run and voting rights work has made her a household name, is arguably the closest America has today to an MLK figure. Like King, Abrams is a “unifying force who still has detractors,” says Christina Greer, OZY’s editor-at-large. Abrams has a similar poetic style undergirded by an optimism for the capacity for change, as OZY reported when Abrams was first breaking national ground in 2016. Her latest success: helping turn Georgia blue before finally securing two Senate victories in January. With a public policy degree from the University of Texas and a J.D. in tax law from Yale, the lawyer and politician is “interested in policy and doing the actual work,” Greer says.
LeBron James. They call him King James for a reason. James has a legitimate G.O.A.T. claim on the basketball court — and, to many, is already the G.O.A.T. among activist athletes off of it. His willingness to fund voting rights organizations and speak about social issues has helped move the conversation on race and equity forward. What’s more, James has never buckled under the pressure: He has won four NBA titles and MVPs while maintaining an admirable personal life, raising three kids with his highschool sweetheart and wife. Sure, he sometimes acts overly cautious or scripted, a trait probably born of his life in the limelight. But while it may seem easy for a multimillionaire to say the right thing, history is littered with those who didn’t. “That’s a huge risk for him. Jordan never did. Most people at that level don’t,” Greer notes.
Celso Athayde. More than half of Brazil’s population identifies as Black, yet in 2018 only 4.5 percent of corporate executives were Afro-Brazilian. Athayde, who lived on the streets with his mother growing up, is trying to change that. Today one of Brazil’s most prominent Black executives, his social enterprise, Central Unica Das Favelas, trains youth from the country’s poor favelas in producing music, video and art, with the aim of getting them jobs as creatives. Athayde’s attempts at building favela youth into a political force haven’t really taken off. But he knows what it takes to rise from the bottom. Can Athayde take the favelas with him? Read more on OZY.
Safoora Zargar. The 28-year-old Kashmiri student has emerged as one of the leading voices against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government’s increasingly bigoted policies, such as the controversial new citizenship law that sparked protests nationwide last year. Zargar was arrested while pregnant and was granted conditional bail after 38 days in solitary confinement. But if Modi’s law enforcement agencies thought the experience would silence her, they were wrong. And her arrest brought global embarrassment for New Delhi, finding its way into the U.S. State Department’s 2020 Human Rights Report. Her cry for justice won’t be quieted easily. Read more on OZY.
Climate Change. Leaders can only emerge when the circumstances require them, as Dr. King did amid mass civil rights abuses of African Americans. Global warming, and the ticking clock to combat it, has also led to a new generation of leaders such as 18-year-old Greta Thunberg. As young as they are, they are inspiring the next activists as well — consider Licypriya Kangujam of India, whose “Survival Kit of the Future” made global headlines while she was just 8 in 2019. Keep an eye on the mercury and the young leadership it brings. Read more on OZY.
New Gender Wars. The gender revolution is here, but it faces major opposition from cultural conservatives. In Missouri, the father of a trans daughter testified against a bill that would block children like her from playing girls’ sports. Mexico, a significantly Catholic country, is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for transgender people. Meanwhile, India recently saw its third transgender judge rise to the bench. Still, the best litmus test may not come from policy, but instead from school hallways, where children are increasingly introducing themselves with their preferred pronouns in addition to their names, creating a more inclusive space for all. Read more on OZY.
Bridging Civil Wars. From Ethiopia to Myanmar, and Libya to Yemen, civil wars are tearing countries apart. Elsewhere, such as in Mozambique and Syria, terrorists are fighting brutal battles against government security forces. In each case, both sides pitch the gun as the only way to resolve their dispute. But what if dialogue were possible, through a mediator both sides trust? In northern Nigeria, for instance, Hamsatu Allamin is doing what might seem impossible: The teacher talks to the deadly Boko Haram, and might be the country’s best bet at getting the terrorist group to the negotiating table. Could the next MLK emerge from a conflict zone?
Indigenous Rights. For centuries, Indigenous communities in the Americas and Australia have seen their demands ignored. Now, a wave of global pressure is spotlighting their battles and throwing up new heroes. Canada’s Mi’kmaq First Nation, for example, is fighting attacks from non-Indigenous neighbors after they were given permission to launch a lobster fishery last year. In Australia, where colonialism wiped out almost all of the nation’s Indigenous languages, new ones are emerging as communities work to keep their culture alive. And in Peru, Ecuador and other Latin American nations, Indigenous groups are on the front lines of nature’s defense against climate change, their initiatives drawing recognition even from the pope.
what comes next
Space Solidarity. Inequality on planet Earth is bad enough, but what happens when we face an unequal galaxy? That question is worth considering after billionaire Elon Musk and Democratic Socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders recently got into a Twitter tiff hinting at the future of a space-based class struggle. Sanders called out Musk’s net worth as “immoral” and “unsustainable,” and Musk defended himself, saying he was “accumulating resources to help make life multiplanetary.” But is the space race a moral good? Only if its riches benefit more than a select few. Given humanity’s track record on this planet, that outcome seems unlikely unless serious action is taken to avoid a universal Altered Carbon-type situation. The work will begin with organizing.
Replacing Hero Worship. Human foibles have never been more readily apparent, or more easily exposed. Cults of personality are still very much alive, but with your heroes always one step away from exposing themselves as woefully inadequate on an issue of importance to you, it’s easy to see why many Gen Zers are pickier with their affections. They are instead broadening their support to movements, rather than movers, while also narrowing their actions as change agents by working on themselves first. For Ossé, that means writing their own narratives: “We need to emphasize and worship and praise movements and collectives, organizations of people and the workers who are actually doing the work.”
Work of ‘The Generations.’ On The Carlos Watson Show, Sarah Jakes Roberts talks about how, when King gave his speech, he said, point blank, this wasn’t just about himself. His dream was explicitly for his children. “If you’re just dreaming about how you want your life to look, I think your dream is too small,” the businesswoman and author says. “Take that dream you have for the present, but connect it to how it will affect the generations.” Any such dream, cause or fight cannot be held by one person alone, caught in one moment of time. Watch on OZY.
‘Organize, Baby, Organize.’ Which brings us back to the words of Dr. King, as he responded to the more militant voices of the civil rights movement whose approach he characterized as “burn, baby, burn.” Unprecedented political organization within the African American community has resulted in stunning electoral wins in recent months. Georgia turned blue for the first time since 1992, and the 117th Congress has nearly twice as many members of color as the 107th Congress two decades ago. However, change never flows in a straight line, as Georgia’s new voter suppression law reminds us. But with growing legislative clout (something MLK dreamed of too), Americans of color have a better chance at seeking change from within the political system than ever before.
Whose King? While MLK was alive, he was often portrayed as a radical and had 75 percent disapproval ratings the year he was assassinated. But since his death, America’s ruling establishment has tried its best to appropriate King as a symbol of reconciliation, not revolt — as many governments have with their staunchest critics. The MLK of the 21st century is not the same as the MLK of 1968, Greer, a political scientist and author of Black Ethnics, explains. Some of his contemporaries wanted him to sit down while others insisted he should do more. President Ronald Reagan designated the third Monday of every January as MLK Day. Conservatives, including Trump, have tried to claim King too. How this tussle over his legacy plays out might be as important as anything else in determining who emerges as the next MLK — and what she, he or they stand for.