Young Georgians forge new fronts, carry MLK’s civic legacy into 2021

Rep. Calvin Smyre (hand on statue) played a role in getting a statue of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. placed on the grounds of the State Capitol. The statue was unveiled this summer on the anniversary of King’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Rep. Calvin Smyre (hand on statue) played a role in getting a statue of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. placed on the grounds of the State Capitol. The statue was unveiled this summer on the anniversary of King’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

A year ago, as Atlanta and the nation prepared to honor the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., few imagined all the upheaval 2020 held in store.

A global pandemic, stay-at-home orders, economic instability, uniquely bitter election campaigns, protests over racial injustice.

Along the way, with the deaths of Congressman John Lewis, the Rev. Joseph Lowery and the Rev. C.T. Vivian, Georgia lost three of its most steady voices in the debate over what social justice should look like. The three King disciples were all giants of the civil rights movement, men widely acknowledged for using intellect and perseverance to carve paths forward for the oppressed.

As another Martin Luther King Jr. Day rolls around on Monday, and America marks what would have been the 92nd birthday of Georgia’s first Nobel Laureate, the upheaval continues. But so does the work.

In Georgia, a new generation is taking up the fight for civil rights, not just from the political arena, or from the pulpit, but from art studios and college campuses.

Civil Rights icons, Joseph Lowery, C.T. Vivian and John Lewis, each died in 2020, leaving a massive void.
Civil Rights icons, Joseph Lowery, C.T. Vivian and John Lewis, each died in 2020, leaving a massive void.

Credit: AJC File

Credit: AJC File

For some of them, the focus is on the same stubborn problems faced down by the civil rights activists of the 1960s, like access to the voting booth and systemic racism. Others are addressing issues that are front and center in 2021: police reform, the rights of unauthorized immigrants, climate change, transgender rights.

“I’m so inspired by this holistic approach to social justice, not a narrow focus on individual rights or group protections,” said Emory University’s Robert Franklin, the former president of King’s alma mater, Morehouse College, and author of a book on moral leadership.

The issues young Georgians are turning their attention to, he said, “represent this 21st century imagination of the emerging leaders that’s very inspiring to me.”

To identify some of those who aren’t widely known but are taking up social justice causes, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution talked to numerous civic leaders and changemakers. Here are just a few of the young Georgians mentioned.

DEMICHA LUSTER, 28

DeMicha Luster, founder of The Urban Advocate, on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021, in Atlanta.  Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
DeMicha Luster, founder of The Urban Advocate, on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

DeMicha Luster has never been a shrinking violet. Which is what made the community advocate gravitate toward Hosea Williams as she learned about the civil rights movement and Atlanta history.

“When he saw issues in his community, he was aggressive and very clear on where he stood,” said Luster.

It was that spirit that drove the Cobb County native to speak up during a post-college internship in community health. Luster felt like the organization she was working for, which focused on promoting healthy parenting techniques, often disregarded the circumstances of the West Atlanta families participating in the program.

She pushed for the organization to be more mindful of participants’ lived experiences.

Luster’s work earned her a nickname among the program participants: the advocate. As her reputation grew, she’d receive phone calls from people who needed help because they were being evicted or facing issues with the city.

Eventually, Luster shifted her work southward toward neighborhoods like Mechanicsville, Pittsburgh and Peoplestown. In 2017, she founded the grassroots organization The Urban Advocate, a play on her nickname and the euphemism often used to describe Black communities.

Recent work has focused on gun violence prevention, trauma response and reclaiming the streets.

Luster also organized meetings with southwest Atlanta residents after the June shooting of Rayshard Brooks in Peoplestown. What resulted was a list of 30 demands that called on the police to adopt a formal community policing program, prohibit the use of chokeholds and eliminate qualified immunity for officers.

“I felt like our community was not protected by those who were elected to serve us,” she said.

JAMES “MAJOR” WOODALL, 26

January 14, 2021 Atlanta - Portrait of Rev. James Woodall, State President of Georgia NAACP, at the Georgia State Capitol building on Thursday, January 14, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
January 14, 2021 Atlanta - Portrait of Rev. James Woodall, State President of Georgia NAACP, at the Georgia State Capitol building on Thursday, January 14, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

In 2019, at the age of 25, James Woodall became the NAACP’s youngest-ever state president. It should not have come as a surprise.

Woodall’s activism was born 2014 when he led protest marches at Georgia Southern University after the death of Eric Garner. Garner, a Black New Yorker, was put in a fatal chokehold by police who suspected him of selling untaxed cigarettes. Then came other Black men killed by police — Botham Jean. Philando Castille. Alton Sterling. Michael Brown — and a Black child, Tamir Rice.

“My election was a testament that there was an urgency of the current moment for our communities to be organized in ways to save lives,” Woodall said. “We were dying. I wanted to respond to the challenges that the current generation faces.”

The Georgia NAACP was coming off of a “stagnant, tumultuous five-year period,” he said.

It was time for a new vision, said Woodall, a divinity student who is also an associate minister at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Marietta.

Since his election, he’s been lobbying elected officials, leading marches against racial injustice and voicing his concerns about the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the Black community.

Though it’s a new movement and a new age, it’s also “a renaissance, to the same kind of work our ancestors were committed to years ago,” Woodall said. “It is a resurrection.”

ZOE BAMBARA, 19

Zoe Bambara, a 19-year-old Morris Brown College freshman and the granddaughter of writer and activist Toni Cade Bambara, speaks with an Atlanta Police officer in Centennial Olympic Park before the May march she organized stepped off. 
"When you have 400 years of oppression, you can’t tell anybody how to be angry,” Bambara said. ROSS WILLIAMS / GEORGIA RECORDER
Zoe Bambara, a 19-year-old Morris Brown College freshman and the granddaughter of writer and activist Toni Cade Bambara, speaks with an Atlanta Police officer in Centennial Olympic Park before the May march she organized stepped off. "When you have 400 years of oppression, you can’t tell anybody how to be angry,” Bambara said. ROSS WILLIAMS / GEORGIA RECORDER

Zoe Bambara was sitting in a salon, getting her hair done, as news channels broadcast wall-to-wall coverage of the killing of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, both unarmed Black men, and the ensuing protests. Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police. Arbery was killed while jogging in Brunswick by white men who chased him down because they suspected he was a thief.

She asked herself a question: “Where was the conversation about Breonna Taylor?”

In March, Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman from Louisville, Kentucky, was shot and killed in her bed by police officers during a botched drug raid.

At that moment, the 19-year-old Morris Brown College freshman decided to plan a march, despite the fact that she had never done anything like that before.

Using social media, she helped stage on May 29 what would become one of Atlanta’s first and largest Black Lives Matter protests.

“For me, the march was about Breonna Taylor and speaking up for another Black woman whose voice wasn’t being heard,” Bambara said. “Black women tend to be forgotten.”

That was never the case in Bambara’s home. She is the granddaughter of acclaimed writer, activist and former Spelman College professor Toni Cade Bambara, the author of the 1970 classic, “The Black Woman: An Anthology.”

Thousands came to Centennial Olympic Park for what was supposed to be a peaceful, two-hour march to the Capitol. But splinter groups broke off and stormed through downtown Atlanta breaking windows, looting shops and setting police cars on fire.

Some critics have pointed to the event as an example of Black Lives Matter run amok while others have said that the Atlanta Police Department was not prepared for the event. Andrew Young and other civil rights leaders said at the time that, while they were proud of the initial work of the organizers, they were disappointed that the “hoodlum element took it over.”

“We knew we were gonna lose control, so we were not shocked,” Bambara said. “But when you have 400 years of oppression, you can’t tell anybody how to be angry.”

Bambara went home early that night but kept marching. She helped organize several other protests in Atlanta and took part in demonstrations in Louisville, where she was arrested for criminal trespassing and disorderly conduct.

In October, she was recognized by the Georgia First Amendment Foundation for leveraging her right “peaceably to assemble.”

YEHIMI CAMBRÓN, 28

Artist and activist Yehimi Cambrón in front of a self-portrait at the High Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of Kristin Ferro.
Artist and activist Yehimi Cambrón in front of a self-portrait at the High Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of Kristin Ferro.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Kristin Ferro

Credit: Photo courtesy of Kristin Ferro

Yehimi Cambrón traces her political activism to a high school art competition.

Then a student of Cross Keys High School in DeKalb, Cambrón placed third in the contest, which won her a trip to the state Capitol for the awards ceremony. But Cambrón couldn’t claim the prize because she didn’t have a social security number.

Cambrón is undocumented. When she was 7, she and her family came to the U.S. from Michoacán, Mexico.

Because of the contest, she said, “I started really thinking about why are things this way and what I could do about it.”

It was at Agnes Scott College that Cambrón truly found her voice, through her art.

“I started learning to use my work to express my story and to process my experience, not just the fear and the uncertainty but also the joy and resilience that comes with being undocumented,” said Cambrón, who is shielded from deportation by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Her artwork has been displayed at the High Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia.

One of Cambrón’s signatures is the Monarch butterfly, which takes sanctuary in her hometown of Michoacán and migrates long distances. “To me, the journey that it makes, and its delicate but resilient nature, reminds me of our own journeys as immigrants,” she said.

TAOS WYNN, 35

210114-Atlanta-Taos Wynn, with Millennial Civil Rights, says that the life, work and legacy of Rep. John Lewis, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Joseph Lowery inspire much of the work that he does today. He keeps a letter from Lewis framed with a photo of the two of them together in his home. Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
210114-Atlanta-Taos Wynn, with Millennial Civil Rights, says that the life, work and legacy of Rep. John Lewis, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Joseph Lowery inspire much of the work that he does today. He keeps a letter from Lewis framed with a photo of the two of them together in his home. Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Taos Wynn’s Millennial Civil Rights Movement was just getting off the ground in 2019 when he got a letter.

Wynn started the organization to advocate for “modernized human and civil rights.”

It was a natural extension of the work of men like King, Vivian, Lowery and the author of that particular letter, John Lewis.

“Now, more than ever, we must encourage the next generation of millennial leaders to take an active role in shaping the future of our country,” wrote Lewis, who was a college student when he became an activist.

The now-framed letter hangs in Wynn’s home. The recognition from Lewis, “who embodied the power that young people have, was incredible,” Wynn said.

A series of trips to Haiti and India inspired Wynn to activism.

“Seeing the experiences around the world, it created such a sense of compassion for people and a desire to uplift,” Wynn said.

Wynn directs the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change’s nonviolence education and training efforts. In 2018, he was awarded a Phoenix Award by the city of Atlanta.

During the election season, Wynn and his Millennial Civil Rights Movement was active in voter registration and campaigning for Democratic senatorial candidates. “It’s time to boldly confront division, racism and injustice,” he said.

ANGELA DOYINSOLA AINA, 37

Angela Doyinsola Aina, executive director of the Black Mamas Matter Alliance. Photo courtesy of Angela Doyinsola Aina.
Angela Doyinsola Aina, executive director of the Black Mamas Matter Alliance. Photo courtesy of Angela Doyinsola Aina.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Angela Doyinsola Aina.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Angela Doyinsola Aina.

In Nigeria, where Angela Doyinsola Aina’s parents hail from, motherhood is revered but maternal deaths are relatively high.

The situation isn’t all that different in Georgia, where Aina grew up. The state has consistently ranked among the worst nationally in maternal mortality – and the disparity is particularly glaring by race. Black mothers in Georgia are three to four times more likely to die than white women in the first year after giving birth, according to a recent state study. Stress associated with being a Black woman is considered to be a contributing factor, as are biases among medical staff.

It’s “a human rights issue because no one should be disrespected, mistreated,” said Aina. “It’s racism.”

Aina is looking to change that through her work leading the Atlanta-based Black Mamas Matter Alliance, a national group,

The Alliance pushed the Georgia legislature last year to extend Medicaid coverage for poor mothers from two months after childbirth to one year. Lawmakers eventually agreed to six months of coverage.

This year, Black Mamas Matter is focused on addressing what Aina described as “antiquated” state policies that restrict midwifery and doula care, alternatives to hospital birthing favored by many women of color who view the U.S. medical system with suspicion. Aina said Georgia has an overly restrictive certification process that turns away would-be midwives who could have a major impact in many of the state’s maternal health care deserts.

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