Organizers Who Inspire
As we celebrate Black History Month, let us take inspiration from outstanding community organizers of the past and present, as we prepare for the future. Let us acknowledge that they started as grassroots activists like many of us are or aspire to be. Let us utilize our passion, available resources, and technology to honor their accomplishments and ensure their missions are accomplished.
Barack Obama, a graduate of Harvard Law School and the former senator of Illinois, has made his mark on American history as the first Black president of the United States of America. Among much of the Black community, Barack Obama is a name synonymous with success and perseverance. Before manning the helm in the oval office as the 44th U.S. president, however, Obama worked on a more local level as a community organizer in the South Side of Chicago not only working to establish suitable, affordable housing, but also working to give voice to the marginalized Black population of the local area by organizing and uniting the local populous.
Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, is a major advocate for police accountability regarding abuses of authority and the use of excessive force on Black citizens. Before reaching international prominence, Cullors began her efforts through social media and is currently a member of the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in L.A. Jails, the Dignity and Power Now organization, and is a board member of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.
Opal Tometi is a Nigerian-American community organizer, writer, and co-founder of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Tometi’s background and identity as the daughter of Nigerian immigrants helps her exercise her position as an activist not only for Black rights, but also women and marginalized immigrant groups as well. Tometi is a feminist, an advocate for education on domestic violence, and an active member of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, collaborating with staff and communities in Los Angeles, Phoenix, New York City, Oakland, Washington D.C. and communities throughout the Southern states.
Alicia Garza, another major leader in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, is a community organizer, speaker, and writer, whose efforts are focused heavily through the lens of not only race, but also gender and sexuality. She also led the Freedom Ride to Ferguson in 2015. Currently, she is the director of People Organized to Win Employment Rights in the San Francisco Bay Area and aided in winning youth rights to free public transportation in San Francisco, alongside combating gentrification. She is also a board member for Forward Together’s Oakland California branch and Oakland's School of Unity and Liberation (SOUL).
Jimmie Briggs is a Black activist and advocate for racial and gender equality and abolition of child soldiers in armed combat. Briggs has participated in community organizing in Ferguson, Missouri following the death of Michael Brown. He helped heal the community by giving talks on important oral histories, training community members to interview one another, as well as holding open conversations and community information sessions. Briggs founded the Man Up campaign, advocating for education against domestic abuse towards women.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a major advocate for racial equality during the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s, is known as one of the most influential speakers in his day. He began his career at the grassroots level, giving sermon after sermon without any idea that he would become the icon of the long-lasting Civil Rights movement. King remained steadfast in his commitment to nonviolence despite being beaten and arrested 29 times.
Angela Davis is a well-known Black professor and social activist who began her efforts during the civil rights movement. In the 1960s and 70s, Davis found herself joining several controversial groups including the Black Panthers and the American Communist Party, while being a college professor and lecturer in a varying number of institutes. Through her status as an educator and lecturer, she used her platform to advocate not only for racial equality, but also for the feminist movement, and efforts to improve the American prison system.
Dorothy Height was a Black civil and women’s rights activist. As a high school student, Height was an active member of her community taking part in anti-lynching campaigns. By 1946, Height had taken up a job in the Harlem YWCA community center and was ultimately placed in charge of directing the integration of all the YWCA’s centers. Even after she had become an elderly woman, Heights efforts continued far into her later years in the 1980s and 90s—organizing the First Black Family Reunion, as well as engaging in the war on drugs, and combating illiteracy and unemployment.
Rosa Parks, was a Black civil rights activist primarily known for her refusal to give up her bus seat on a public bus in Montgomery, AL. Through her simple display of civil disobedience, a single woman became the face of an entire movement. However, Parks’ contributions weren’t always done in the limelight, as she had initially begun her work as the chapter secretary and investigator for theNAACP in Montgomery, AL as well as being an active participant in the Montgomery Bus Boycotts.
Bayard Rustin was both a nonviolent activist and the adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King during the Civil Rights movement. Before becoming one of MLK’s closest associates, Rustin began his career in social justice as a nonviolent protester of WWII and racial segregation in the public transit system. He allied with pacifist groups including the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
For many, these agents of social change come to mind when the term “community organizer” is mentioned. But before achieving icon status, each of them toiled at the grassroots level registering voters, organizing community meetings, and calling people to action. Although progress has been made, today we face many of the same challenges as these famous organizers. To secure their legacies, each of us must take action and mobilize others as they have done.