by Valencia Richardson
“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”
When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he had no way to know it would speak to a generation of teenagers and 20-somethings who spend most of their time on their phones.
I like to think Dr. King was speaking to some distant future, hoping that generations not yet thought of would be called to action, to face injustice when they saw it. Maybe he didn’t just write his letter and have it snuck out of the Birmingham jail (where he was being held for protesting injustice in the Alabama town along with other members of the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) just to chastise white moderates who showed cowardice in the face of the uproar during the campaign in Birmingham.
Maybe Dr. King also sought to preserve the memory of his time in jail to speak to all of us who want progress in the South, and to remind us that progress only stops when we stop working.
At least, he was speaking to me. I want to be home in the South, to speak about home and to work on behalf of my home, because injustice is at home. I want to work on issues that affect my home and to invest in it. I want others to know the beauty of my home, and the resilience of my home’s people. Like many other young activists who thirst for change in the South, I refuse to cede ground to injustice. I decided I would dedicate my career to fighting injustice back home in the Deep South, no matter where I am located physically. Whether or not I am physically in my hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, I am there, because if I am not there, then there is no one else to take my place. If not me, then who?
This is not a statement of arrogance; there are just not enough young Southerners on the ground to do the work. More importantly, there are not enough people on the ground who understand the obstacles they are working against but want to do the work anyway. In a region where it feels like oppressive results are foregone conclusions, even the potential for change requires the public presence of people who refuse to believe that the South’s outcomes have to be what they are. Progress, after all, is a numbers game. Though it may take only one person to start a movement, it takes countless others to sustain it and ensure the movement’s success. The answer to if not me, then who? is already known: When a young person is inactive in the cause, there is no one to take their place.
Many young, Southern progressives who do become successful leave their home and never look back; the ones who decide to stay feel like they can never leave.
Zöe Williamson, an organizer in her own right, recognized her obligation to her community early on. At just 20 years old, she used her platform as the president of the first civic-engagement organization run by college students in Louisiana, Geaux Vote LSU, to implement a voter registration program on Louisiana State University’s 30,000-student campus. She successfully petitioned the East Baton Rouge Metro Council to place a polling location on campus for the 2020 elections, and her drive registered more than 2,000 college students to vote (full disclosure: I helped found Geaux Vote LSU in 2015). She is from St. Francisville, Louisiana, — a classic, picturesque south Louisiana town of approximately 1,600 people, where the moss grows as fast as the sun rises and sets.
Though a young leader herself, Zöe is looking ahead, training the younger student leaders who will come behind her. While Zöe figures out her next steps — grad school is certainly in her future, as well as creating her own nonprofit — she remains dedicated to the cause of youth voting rights in Louisiana.
“If I were to leave, I'm the only person who cares about it,” she said to me. “I'm trying to create a generation of students at LSU who care about it, by giving them all the information [they need]. And hopefully a couple of them will care and will actually do the work. But right now, if I didn't, there's no one who's gonna fight for it.”
If not me, then who? also serves as a caution. The answer to that question could easily be if not me, then someone with less privilege than me; or worse, if not me, then someone with more to lose than me. The common strategy employed in confronting injustice is to give face to those who confront it, to demonstrate the humanity of the cause. This should not have to be. As more people with privilege step away from the fight, more of the most vulnerable are forced out of the shadows. While one should never look to speak on any other group’s behalf, one should always step up to stand beside the most vulnerable — and to follow their lead. What would the Civil Rights Movement have been without the clergymen who answered Dr. King’s call to join the campaign in Alabama? One of those was a white, 26-year-old Episcopal seminarian, Jonathan Daniels, who was shotgunned to death by an unpaid “special deputy.” He took the blast to save a fellow activist, Ruby Sales. Dr. King later said, "oOne of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels."
If not me, then there are not enough accomplices in the fight. If there is no one to take your place, if not me, then the most marginalized stand alone.
What can be gleaned from the cause of getting other young Southerners to care? Young people are searching for better futures. Particularly when horizons look brighter in a different part of the country, recruiting other young people requires convincing them the cause is worthy. For the activist seeking to recruit, this specifically means demonstrating to your peers that the long-term gains of progress are worth the short-term disappointments of trying.
For Charlie Bonner, a 23-year-old organizer for MOVE Texas, the key is to get people to understand that securing your future starts with you.
“People are not our saviors,” Charlie insists, because he believes that “we are imperfect people working for a more perfect cause.”
Charlie speaks from experience. A Virginia native whose Texas roots go back to the original landowners in the state (“old country Texas” as he likes to call it), Charlie's interest in politics started when he was 12 years old and his civics teacher got him involved in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. He moved to Texas in search for connection to his family's roots, attending the University of Texas in Austin. His undergraduate thesis took him on a cross-country road trip through the continental United States in search for the people's meaning of democracy. Now, as an organizer for progressive causes in one of the most rambunctious state capitals in the South, he believes the key is to do the work now, rather than wait on someone else to make the necessary changes because “we don't have the benefit of being a visionary.” Organizers are trying to make change now, and build the dream later.
Such is the cause — sticking around and hoping a few people will care as much as you do, catching people before the disillusionment sets in. In addition to staying, part of the gig is getting other people to stay, too. When you are younger, you are taught to believe in the ability to work hard and make things happen. Perhaps you witness a groundbreaking event and it causes you to believe the status quo can be changed, even if that is sometimes just the naïvete of youth. Whatever the cause, young people tend to start off on more optimistic footing than their older counterparts. Even if a young person is apathetic (although studies show this is more generalization than a reality), they are more likely to listen and more likely to be put to work on a cause they believe in. If you wait too long, you may find that your peers have resigned themselves to the fate of a doomed South, and it becomes much harder to recruit.
The sense of obligation, then, is not a self-aggrandizing feeling that only I can do this. While in some sense the obligation to stay requires one to feel confident in their ability to make change on their own, it is more complicated than that. We don't say if not me, then who? because we believe we are the only people capable. We also ask, “Who else is able to take on the task?” And, “How we can bring those people to the cause?”
If not me, then who? is not just a sentiment, but a call to action.
Valencia Richardson is a rising third-year law student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. A native of Shreveport, Louisiana, Valencia has spent her youth working on the neverending cause of progressive activism in the South. Her upcoming book, Young and Disaffected, is scheduled for publication in December from New Degree Press. You can pre-order it here.