MLK Day carries added weight amid renewed Black lives matter movement

Holly Zachariah
(Left to right) Charlie Stewart, Hana Abdur-Rahim and Aramis Malachi-Ture Sundiata

Night after night after night last summer, Charlie Stewart marched through the streets of Columbus, chanting the names of Black men and women killed by police until Stewart’s weary body ached.

But just as the freedom fighters who came before, Stewart marched on. The families left behind were too important, the struggle was too real, the fight too meaningful, the stakes too high. Giving up was never an option.

Each Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Stewart tries to shed light on the legacy of the late civil-rights leader. The real legacy, Stewart says, not the whitewashed history so often passed around.

And this year, for those such as Stewart who helped lead the racial reckoning that unfolded across the nation in 2020 and who recently watched a mob that included known white supremacists lay siege to the U.S. Capitol, MLK Day carries some extra weight.

“I think it’s important for organizers and freedom fighters to reflect on what our ancestors did, what they were trying to tell the world,” said Stewart, a 34-year-old community organizer with Black Queer & Intersectional Collective (BQIC). “We like to try to reflect on what they were telling us. What is still relevant today? Most of it is.”

Stewart said it's especially important now — viewed through the lens of last summer’s protests sparked by police violence nationwide and the December deaths of Andre Hill and Casey Goodson, two Black men shot and killed by law enforcement officers in Columbus — that when people discuss King, his beliefs and legacy are viewed accurately.

“People see him as this respectable preacher who preached love and peace and harmony,” Stewart said.

But especially later in the movement before his assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968, King’s ideology had shifted away from nonviolence as the only method to change.

“MLK was more radical and left than people would think. He really preached about us building our own types of systems to address our own pain, our own needs. That is what speaks to me about MLK Jr. That’s why I’m an abolitionist,” Stewart said. “He is the one who told us about forming communities of care … and about self-preservation and really building the village.”

Aramis Malachi-Ture Sundiata, executive director of the People’s Justice Project in Columbus, said the tactical lessons learned from leaders such as King, Malcolm X and others in the '60s are still used in this current movement: mass mobilizations of people, marches and direct actions such as sit-ins and blockades to get policies changed.

And the very issues that were such a part of King’s rhetoric — fair wages and income equality, police brutality, the war on poverty — remain center stage today. But what’s different in the movement of the past year, Sundiata said, is the ground-level organizers working together for transformation and change.

“Everybody wants a taste of freedom and everybody wants a taste of purpose, and we just happen to be doing it in the political arena,” said Sundiata, of the North Side. “When you see what is possible, when you see people out here chanting ‘Whose streets? Our streets!’ and then you see people begin to believe that — that’s intoxicating. That’s what gets you up in the morning. People feel purpose, and that is what drives you.”

But Sundiata said he never has a single moment when he looks back at the struggles from history and feels discouraged that this fight for equality and justice and change still rages.

“This is a river of no return. Once you’re in it, you’re either in for the people or not for the people” he said. “We are continuing the righteous and glorious struggle of the African working class … and answering the philosophical and ideological questions left to us from the '60s.”

And, just as for the other community organizers, it’s a struggle that Hana Abdur-Rahim has been a part of for years.

Abdur-Rahim entered the local organizing and activism scene in 2016, and is now, among other things, co-executive director of the Central Ohio Freedom Fund, which offers bail and jail support in the Black community.

She, too, reflects often on King and other freedom fighters from the past. And thinks about how little has changed.

“If we’re talking about the '60s, when the KKK and white supremacy groups were operating, the same stuff is happening now, just with different names,” she said. “And it is up to us to not only learn from great leaders such as Martin Luther King and his lessons but also learn from his mistakes as well.”

One of those mistakes, she said, was that Malcolm X and King didn’t join forces. Because there is power in numbers, she said.

Abdur-Rahim, who has a federal lawsuit pending against Columbus from when she was pepper sprayed by police in January 2017 while protesting President Donald Trump’s travel ban for people from specific countries, said she has waited for years to see social justice movements swell in Columbus as they did this summer.

“I think we are powerful, and we are only getting stronger. I think the movement itself is growing," said Abdur-Rahim, 33, of the South Side. “People really want change. We just want people to imagine a different world, a world where people are truly treated equitably and justice is real.”

Stewart said with the trauma of December's Goodson and Hill shootings still so fresh, and the heartache of those families still so raw, this Martin Luther King Jr. Day hits differently.

The pain of those families weighs heavy on their own soul.

"The meeting where you’ve connected with the family that just lost someone to police violence and you have to talk to them about strategy and organizing, it’s the hardest thing," Stewart said. "When all you really want to do is heal their spirt and their mind. But you have to talk to them about how to fight."

Stewart tries each Martin Luther King Jr. Day to shed light on who the man really was, focusing most on what he spoke about near the end of his life. And it's also a day to reflect on whether the movement has gone far enough.

The answer for Stewart is no.

"I am happy that there is this awareness that has happened this year — this awareness that the state is indeed violent. But for me, freedom is being able to move and navigate in this world without fear. It’s all of my people having all they need to not only survive but to thrive in life — none of us worrying about our survival anymore," Stewart said.

"Freedom looks like all of us being able to address our trauma, and that means addressing the very forms of violence that caused our trauma in the first place.”