The patron saint of America’s civil rights movement, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., is part of every school curriculum and there’s a federal holiday in his name — when even George Washington has to share custody. There can be no “next” King, and it’s not fair to anyone to hand off that label. But after a year of conflict and connection around race in America, when we were shaken awake to unresolved issues from King’s day, it’s worth reflecting on who’s carrying his torch in 2021. In honor of MLK Day, this Sunday Magazine introduces you to today’s leaders across issues to which King devoted his life’s work: poverty, labor, religion and civil rights. Looking for inspiration? Read on.
There’s something shockingly refreshing about when the can-do spirit kicks in. Dr. Stanford got tired of waiting for various governmental authorities to do something — anything — and kicked in a COVID-19 testing and treatment protocol in church parking lots wherever she could in Philadelphia, where she found Black residents hit disproportionately hard by the disease but lacking access to care. And when labs asked who was going to actually pay for the tests, Stanford, 50, also answered that call and did so out of her own pocket. Now she’s got a Gofundme for testing and advocacy — while the government response still lags — as long-neglected communities of color continue to be skeptical of the vaccine and medicine in general.
The CEO and founder of Hope Enterprise and the Hope Credit Union, Bynum is essentially a personal banker for the poor of the Mississippi Delta. The 62-year-old views his mission as largely a civil rights one in protecting the poor from predatory lenders. Having grown up in a trailer in North Carolina before becoming an accidental banker (he wanted to go to law school), Bynum knows his customers’ plight better than most. Now he’s taking those lessons national: Bynum was named to Joe Biden’s presidential transition team to help hew a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that lives up to its name.
You can get pegged as a troublemaker for resisting the notion that poverty is a normal state that we should accept. But troublemaking has been the 69-year-old Nichol’s line of work for some time. A law professor at the University of North Carolina, rabble-rousing columnist and former head of the university’s center on poverty — until the university board shut the center down, likely for political reasons — he published The Faces of Poverty in North Carolina: Stories from Our Invisible Citizens in 2018 and followed it up with 2020’s Indecent Assembly: The North Carolina Legislature's Blueprint for the War on Democracy and Equality. The latter book accused state Republicans of a political agenda hostile to the poor, to whom Democrats were indifferent. Someone had to say it.
This Democrat brings an unconventional strategy to grassroots organizing: He tells his volunteers to close their eyes and picture when they couldn’t afford a bill or rent. It’s not hard for him to conjure, even if the 41-year-old Blue Apron investor and former Blackstone consultant is now worth millions. After all, he grew up poor, raised mostly by his working mother while living in fear of gun-toting collectors seeking his deeply indebted father. Sanberg channeled that experience into numerous anti-poverty efforts, including a nonprofit called CalEITC4Me that has helped more than 2 million low-income Californians receive more than $4 billion in tax credits.
What gets a Midwestern daughter of a banker involved in poverty issues? She blames empathy, but it almost seems accidental. While poring over records from the Oakland, California, school district she discovered something hiding in plain sight: African-American male students were six times more likely than white male students to be suspended, and in elementary school they were nine times more likely to be suspended with 44 percent of the suspensions for “defiance.” So Brown has made a career out of pushing policy solutions into California’s schools to improve equity and give kids a ladder out of poverty.
As the largest bank in the U.S., JPMorgan Chase & Co. is stepping up to foster economic opportunity and inclusion for historically marginalized communities. “Systemic racism is a tragic part of America’s history,” writes Brian Lamb, global head of diversity and inclusion at JPMorgan Chase. “It’s our responsibility to do something about it, given the role of banks in the financial health of the communities we serve.” Learn more about JPMorgan Chase’s $30 billion commitment to providing economic opportunities in underserved communities.
Just out of high school and still 17, he made waves by organizing a peaceful protest that drew thousands of people to O’Fallon, Missouri, a St. Louis suburb, in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Many were moved by images of Thompson and other demonstrators linking arms with the local police chief while marching against police brutality. “He was invested in our process … [the police] were on our side the whole time,” Thompson said of the surprising gesture of unity. And he has continued his work as a freshman music major at Colorado State university, where he wrote articles urging fellow students to vote.
The Mumbai-born immigration advocate is one of just 15 or so lawyers who bore the entire legal weight of Trump’s policies in the Mexican border town of Matamoros, where thousands of asylum-seekers waited for months with miniscule chances of actually having their court cases heard. But now D’Cruz — a rabble-rouser prone to bragging about her boxing skills to unamused Border Patrol Agents — may get the last punch. Rest assured though: If Biden doesn’t bring meaningful change, this proud “chingona” will save plenty of jabs for him too.
The conservative firebrand wears her faith proudly while advocating for criminal justice reform in Louisiana, which has an incarceration rate among the highest in the world. Other Republican lawmakers make the pitch for fixing prisons mostly about cutting budget fat. But Emerson directly ties the work of reintegrating people into society to the church’s belief “in redemption and getting families back together.” A member of the state house for now, the 32-year-old will be a key part in pushing the GOP to be “not just the party of ‘no,’ but be the party of solutions,” as she puts it.
She comes from a family of farmers who worked the soil of the Black Belt in Alabama, growing vegetables and, yes, cotton, although her grandfather’s real cash crop was probably moonshine. Now Brown is cultivating democracy as co-founder of Black Voters Matter, organizing voters of color in unconventional places (particularly rural ones) and playing a key role in the rising blue tide in the South. Most recently in Georgia, she helped plant the seeds that ultimately gave Democrats both the presidency and control of Congress.
The Portland, Oregon, fair housing and civil rights organizer once fought for housing reform by staging a 55-day hunger strike outside of city hall. Another time, he campaigned for mayor while wearing only a cardboard box. Whitten, 29, has matured in his approach since those days, but that hasn’t tempered his enthusiasm for change. He used social media to keep activists informed and safe throughout the battles waged on Portland’s streets during the Trump presidency. And when COVID-19 struck, he quickly pulled together a public fund that raised millions for Black residents and businesses shuttered by the pandemic.
labors of love
1. Chewy Shaw
This engineer (real name Charles) pulled off a David vs. Goliath move, helping organize workers at Google’s parent company. Newly elected as Alphabet Workers vice chair to run the new union’s executive council, Shaw was tired of seeing co-workers being targeted as activists. So Shaw and others formed a group to protect the voices who might be more committed than others to the company’s catchphrase: “Don’t be evil.” The announcement this month could be a watershed moment for labor in Silicon Valley.
The international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, has earned her rise into the limelight the hard way. Working as a United Airlines flight attendant since 1996, Nelson (pictured above) now reps almost 50,000 other attendants at more than 20 airlines during a particularly tough time for carriers, travelers and those working with both. With air rage now being a thing and the formerly friendly skies being politicized over mask wars and flying rioters, Nelson has her hands full, even if talk has now shifted to whether she will join the Biden administration Department of Labor (she was a rumored pick for Labor Secretary, until Biden tapped Boston Mayor Marty Walsh).
3. Alphonso Mayfield
Born in Mississippi, the president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Florida Public Services Union is emerging as a go-to force in labor and politics in this always critical swing state. Mayfield, 42, organizes workers across the state’s municipalities and school districts, and has been active in communities of color, while pursuing connections with labor groups in Australia, China, Norway and South America. An executive board member of the powerful SEIU International, Mayfield is on the rise.
4. Sara Horowitz
She was declared a MacArthur Foundation “genius” at age 36. Now at 57, Horowitz is leading the way for gig workers, as founder of Working Today, which is best understood as a “freelancers’ union.” While being the granddaughter of a vice president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the daughter of a union lawyer helps, Horowitz’s take on organizing freelancers was novel when she launched the first-of-its-kind organization in 1995. And coming next month? Her new book, Mutualism: Building the Next Economy From the Ground Up.
5. Bethany Khan
The Culinary Union is a powerful political force in Nevada, a state that takes gustatory hospitality seriously with all of its casino trade. Engaged and knuckle-deep in it all is Bethany Khan, the director of communications and digital strategy for the Culinary Union. A daughter of immigrants, Khan was the first among 10 family members to go to college and the first to hold powerful feet to the flames in the name of comprehensive worker-centered immigration reform. Her present focus, though, is COVID-connected safety and economic woes, as the virus has hit workers in the gaming industry particularly hard.
The Georgian will soon join South Carolina Republican Tim Scott as the only Black U.S. senators from the old Confederacy since Reconstruction — and the preacher ran his campaign straight from the pulpit of MLK’s old church to boot. Warnock’s race became a test of faith after his opponent spun his sermons as anti-patriotic and radical, a tactic that may have backfired when Black voters turned out in droves to carry his and Sen.-elect Jon Ossoff’s candidacies over the finish line. While Warnock was able to run on puppies and sanity in the election, he may be pressed harder by progressives in Democrat-controlled Washington as he faces re-election in two years.
2. Alveda King
MLK’s niece has become a prominent conservative and Trump ally, making a sharp break from most of the King family. A paid contributor on Fox News, the 69-year-old regularly defends the president — including through his second impeachment this past week — as a friend to the African-American community. Whatever Trump’s future holds, her Alveda King Ministries is dedicated primarily to ending abortion, which the born-again Christian says is her life’s work.
Early on as a new Catholic priest, Lemmert called out another pastor for abusing children … and was himself banished from the parish as a result. That was in the mid-’90s, but time vindicated the New Yorker, who went on to minister to inmates in the maximum security prison Sing Sing. Now he is a leader of the Catholic Whistleblowers, a group that works to reveal abusers and pass laws to better protect victims. His answer to what keeps him reforming is biblical: “I’ve always been a good shepherd, and I’m not going to abandon the flock when they need me most.”
When OZY first met Beach-Ferrara in an Asheville coffee shop in 2017, she stood out: a queer pastor in a purple state known for political battles over which gender could use which bathroom. Now the poetic politician is a bit more of a mainstay, entering her second term as Buncombe County commissioner. She led her community through the Trump presidency, COVID-19 and a national reckoning over police brutality spurred by the George Floyd protests — and her faithful were happy enough to re-elect her in November by nearly 20 percentage points. Could Beach-Ferrara be the next Southern faith leader drafted into a statewide run?
grabbing the global torch
1. Zulaikha Patel
In 2016, teachers at Pretoria High School for Girls told a 13-year-old Patel that her Afro hairstyle needed to be tamed. She decided to tame school racism instead. After a tense standoff with private security forces, Patel became the face of a student-led movement to eliminate racial prejudice from South Africa’s elite private schools that continues to rage across the nation. South Africa’s “Black Students Matter” movement, inspired by the racial justice reckoning in the U.S., is hitting the country’s top institutions on an unprecedented scale.
2. Ada Colau
The 46-year-old Barcelona mayor’s struggle against poverty follows her own hardship: While studying philosophy at the University of Barcelona, she had to quit one class shy of her degree because her family had hit dire economic straits. While this may have colored her 2009 formation of the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (PAH in Spanish), a response to the bursting of Spain’s housing bubble, Colau’s work seeking a more level economic playing field has been award-worthy, earning her the 2013 European Citizen’s Prize among others. Now she’s in the midst of launching the World Capital of Sustainable Food 2021.
Like King, she did her time behind bars — an experience she suffered through while pregnant. Zargar, 27, a prominent nonviolent protest leader against India’s new anti-Muslim citizenship law, was arrested in April for giving an “inflammatory speech” in northeast Delhi ahead of Trump’s arrival there. She was released a couple months later, after dealing with inhumane conditions in Asia’s largest prison, but still is barred from leaving New Delhi.
She’s on trial for offending Poland’s religious sensibilities, something the country’s ruling right-wing populist PiS party is keen to defend from enemies real and imagined. The 53-year-old activist had just returned from an Amnesty International advocacy tour when she was arrested for using images of the famous Black Madonna of Czestochowa with rainbow halos to campaign for LGBTQ rights. It’s part of a long fight for Podleśna, who’s faced death threats for organizing strikes in defense of women and sexual minorities.
It’s known as Africa’s last colony. Western Sahara, a territory occupied by Morocco for decades in contravention of international law, was dealt a blow recently when the Trump administration recognized Morocco’s claims to the area as part of a deal to get Rabat to normalize relations with Israel. That makes Haidar an even more important — and embattled — presence. The 54-year-old activist has been jailed and beaten by police as she fights for 600,000 Sarawahis’ rights. But she’s also caught in a generation gap: Younger activists want to take up arms with the Polisario Front, beaten down by nearly 30 years of broken promises since a UN-brokered ceasefire. Haidar has long preached peace and negotiation.
The 51-year-old Peruvian farmer (pictured above) withstood threats and violence from a U.S. mining firm to fight for the rights of indigenous communities to hold onto their land. Acuña’s refusal to budge single handedly stalled the Newmont Corporation’s planned Conga copper and gold mine, which would have devastated the local environment and was abandoned by Newmont in 2016. But a lawsuit is ongoing, and a U.S. appeals court recently said it must be heard in Peru’s corruption-plagued court system — a blow to Acuña’s efforts.
7. Pania Newton
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is widely seen as a progressive leader, with a female Maori foreign minister and a strong record of fighting COVID-19. But Newton, a 30-year-old indigenous rights activist, is presenting a more complicated tale. Newton is challenging Ardern to do more for indigenous people and is leading land rights movements. She recently won a key battle when the New Zealand government bought a sacred Maori site that had been tagged for development.