More than 50 years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, the fight against racial injustice in the United States resonates as loudly as ever. While King’s work continues to inspire change, the plagues of ignorance and exploitation fester in just about every corner of our democracy, making progress seem as stubborn as ever.
Ferguson. Charlottesville. Baltimore. Charleston. Americans are still reckoning with demons and confronting injustice. And as the lions of yesterday’s civil rights face mortality, there’s a generational shift that is bridging the fight for equality into the future.
Fortunately, King’s grassroots call to service to right past wrongs is alive in the work of three Charleston-area leaders, each of whom is under the age of 40 and elected in recent years.
S.C. Rep. J.A. Moore (D-Berkeley) traces his drive to run for office in 2018 to his father’s decision to help organize factory workers in Hampton County 20 years before he was born.
“He was a plant worker, so he wasn’t a rich man, but my inheritance was doing the necessary work to continue the movement that he helped activate,” Moore says.
He says the issues facing his constituents every day affect how he follows in the footsteps of his parents, particularly related to wealth disparities and access to power.
“As much as I think there’s value in marching and sitting in, I think that tactic has had its time. I think we have to do it in different ways [now],” Moore says, like by running for office, litigating issues in the courts, and starting community groups.
“The tactics are different, but I think some of the same challenges that my father and mother and countless other people fought for, I think we still have those same challenges.”
State Rep. Marvin Pendarvis (D-Charleston), first elected in 2017, agrees “activism has evolved,” shifting toward a fight more straightforwardly about economic fairness.
“At its core, we’re still fighting for justice and equality for African Americans, but I think it’s a different fight. It’s an economic fight now,” Pendarvis says. “You see more activism in the form of influencing policy from the inside out.”
Democratic state Rep. Krystle Matthews, also elected in 2018 from Berkeley County, says younger people are seeing opportunities once they decide to make their voices heard.
“People don’t generally push limits or boundaries where they don’t think they can,” Matthews says. “Now I think we’re starting to cultivate a culture where the young people understand that it is their right to speak up, it is their right to be heard.”
“It’s going to create a wave through the future that will cause us to be more active in the decisions that affect how we live,” says Matthews.
Dramatic change won’t come from politicians or community leaders alone. It won’t come without a radical rethinking of how and why we participate in our society. Moore, Pendarvis, and Matthews took big steps by running for office. What will you do?