Jeff Johnson — a journalist, activist and political commentator, best known for his many appearances on B.E.T. — delivered a powerful message in celebration of iconic leader Martin Luther King, Jr. on January 13. He gave his speech “Civil Rights to Human Rights: The Courage to Lead” at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
Addressing a packed room in the school’s ballroom, Johnson’s central theme was the necessity of evolution within the activism community. He used King’s world-famous “I Have a Dream” speech to argue that the civil rights leader would not have wanted to see activists of today operating in the same ways as yesteryear.
“We keep wanting to do things in a way that doesn’t work anymore and then call it righteous because it’s what they did. And that’s why we keep hearing the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech over and over again,” said Johnson. “The speech is used to manipulate emotion by leaders that don’t have current day vision.”
Johnson reminded his audience of how even King had evolved in his aim and message throughout the years.
“What in the world would make you think that if King was living in 2016 that he’d still be dreaming a 1960’s dream? King was constantly evolving,” Johnson informed his audience. “He wasn’t even talking about the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech when he got shot. He was talking about The Poor People’s Campaign. He was talking about the war in Vietnam. He was beginning to engage on a human rights level because he understood that civil rights was important, but human rights included civil rights.”
Grassroots movements centered on Black rights and human rights have been popping up all over America in the wake of the increasing coverage of police brutality against African Americans and other social issues. Johnson explained that these newer groups have a kind of relevance that the older civil rights organizations no longer possess.
“The reason why The Dream Defenders or Black Lives Matter have become so popular and are so quoted … is because often, the NAACP, The Urban League and the Black church are so irrelevant that news people don’t even know who they are to call on them to provide information on what they don’t do anything with,” he explained. “If they’re going to be effective, there has to be an infusion of an elevated strategy, an infrastructure, that is relevant to 2016.”
Johnson suggested that it is time for the older generation of activists and leaders to not only pass the baton to the younger generation, but use their experience and education to guide them in making uncharted strides in human rights.
“The leadership of young people that we’re seeing all over the country … there’s aggression, there’s brilliance, there’s focus, there is discipline. But because you’re talking about a generation that’s been disconnected from institutions for over a generation, very very few of them have the institutional knowledge with which to create sophisticated infrastructure that ensures the sustainability of the work that they’re doing,” Johnson stated. “That’s not their fault.
“But the question is, where are the people that understand institutional infrastructure and strategy saying to young people, ‘I’m here for you in whatever way you need me,’ not, ‘Can I help turn you into what I think you should be?'”
As Johnson wrapped up his speech, he reminded his audience that our society’s problems are systemic and “won’t be solved overnight.” He continued that while the strategies of the civil rights movement must be updated, the courage and vision that King and his peers had are more necessary than ever to solve our issues. Johnson also suggested that if we follow the path of King and other revolutionaries, we could tap into the greatness that has kept King’s legacy alive almost 50 years after his death.
“What is it that you want to see change, and what does it look like, what does it feel like? What do you want your great grandchildren to experience that you never had? King, when he talked about ‘I Have a Dream,’ [he] talked about stuff that people didn’t think would happen in his lifetime. Those in that time recognized that if we don’t have dreams and visions that almost seem impossible, why dream them at all?”
“So, are we willing to create the kind of infrastructure that just wants to regurgitate stuff so that you can make people feel good about what we don’t do, or are we clear about developing institutional infrastructure that creates strategy and a sophisticated chess board?” he added.
Johnson ended with questions that anyone who wants to invoke change in the world should ask themselves: “How will you lead? Who will you touch? What will you transform?”