By Dr. Kandis Y. Wyatt, PMP
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. all left strong legacies as civil rights leaders and activists. Despite their influential efforts, however, there are still struggles for civil rights around the globe.
As we approach Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national holiday that recognizes Dr. King and his non-violent efforts toward social justice and peace, it’s important to look back and recognize the accomplishments and similarities of not only Dr. King, but also other great leaders. All of them campaigned for civil rights and social justice.
Desmond Tutu: Advocating Social Change
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who passed away recently, was an activist for racial justice, Palestinian statehood, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights. The tributes to Tutu’s life included his gallant efforts to eradicate apartheid in South Africa, his global impact and his kind heart.
Like King, Tutu used his pulpit to galvanize public opinion against inequality, injustice and racial inequity. An Anglican priest, Tutu was the voice of faith and moral courage in South Africa and encouraged others to oppose South Africa’s apartheid system using non-violent methods.
Tutu also lobbied against institutional racism. For his work, Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.
Tutu’s sermons advocated kindness and forgiveness. His sermons were similar to Gandhi’s preachings of laughter, love and unity.
Tutu’s tireless advocacy for peace transcended geographic boundaries. He had an enormous compassion for the oppressed, and his deep faith gave him an unwavering moral compass. Tutu often stated that he was not a politician, but a follower of truth and justice.
Nelson Mandela: Working to End Apartheid in South Africa
Nelson Mandela is considered one of the world’s most renowned civil rights activists. He led South Africa out of apartheid and served as its first black president from 1994 to 1999, dying at the age of 95 in 2013.
Mandela is described as the father of South Africa and used his time to transform his country into an oppression-free society. Mandela preached that you can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself and that all leaders need to humble themselves.
Mandela advocated forgiveness through transformed conduct and character. He also insisted on respect and humility to champion change.
Mahatma Gandhi: Helping the Cause of Indians in India and South Africa
Known as the “father of India,” Mahatma Gandhi championed nonviolence and fought to improve civil rights rights for the Indian people in both India and South Africa. Gandhi acquired a law degree in Great Britain and used his legal expertise to improve conditions for Indian immigrants living in South Africa.
Gandhi’s efforts also included leading a peaceful resistance to protest British rule in India and organizing boycotts against British institutions. He traveled by train across India to speak of independence and human dignity for everyone. He advocated for equality in ordinary affairs and for laws that equally addressed all human needs.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: Fighting for Social Justice
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. graduated as the valedictorian of his seminary and served as the pastor of a Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama. During that era, “separate but equal” Jim Crow laws were prevalent in the U.S., especially in the South. These laws that permitted the unfair treatment of African Americans sparked many protests and calls for justice in the 1950s and 1960s.
A group of activists, including Dr. King, formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which conducted non-violent protests for civil rights. Dr. King is also well-known for his “I Have a Dream” speech, which has been quoted millions of times to advocate the need for social equity and to express the sentiment that all men and women are created equally.
Nonviolent but effective protests such as the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, for instance, enabled a community to unite and peacefully advocate for equal rights for all bus riders. A similar noteworthy anti-racism effort was Dr. King’s powerful “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” a rebuke to critics who denounced Dr. King’s practices.
Dr. King’s humanitarian nature challenged all of us to think about our personal beliefs and their effect on the community.
As we look forward to Martin Luther King Jr. Day on January 17, it is a good time for all of us to develop an awareness of injustice and be advocates for civil rights. Injustice awareness starts with allyship – recognizing the injustice around you and advocating for change.
How to Become an Ally
According to the Guide for Allyship, here are some ways for you to become an ally and address social injustice:
- Do be open to listening.
- Do be aware of your implicit biases.
- Do your research to learn more about the history of the struggle in which you are participating.
- Do the inner work to figure out a way to acknowledge how you participate in oppressive systems.
- Do the outer work and figure out how to change the oppressive systems.
- Do use your privilege to amplify (digitally and in-person) historically suppressed voices.
- Do learn how to listen and accept criticism with grace, even if it’s uncomfortable.
- Do the work every day to learn how to be a better ally.
Tutu, Mandela, Gandhi and King were all activists who understood that sustainable change and advocacy are needed everywhere. As we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, our focus should be on fostering change inside ourselves to make a difference in our global society.