The Power of Voice
An open invitation to use yours to fulfill the legacy of Dr. King
by Ashley Walker, January 18, 2014
This week we celebrate what would have been the 85th birthday of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We also commemorate the Civil Rights Movement that he helped inspire, which culminated in the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, a year I will never forget.
Fifty years ago, in 1964, I was a high school student, fully immersed in the hopes and the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. For me and my family, the struggle was about dignity and respect, but it was also about life and death. We were from the rural south where it was dangerous for African Americans to use our voices and more than one family member suffered for trying. To escape threats of death, several of us went north, settling in Cleveland, Ohio, where I attended high school.
I understood that I, and those around me, were “the change.” It was our responsibility to use our voices, especially when it was too dangerous for others. So we helped people get to the polls to vote, we spoke up about what we saw and felt, and we joined the chorus of voices across the nation calling for change. In the summer before my senior year, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law and we were elated. We had dared to hope and dared to act and that had yielded change.
But our work was not done. Discrimination in the law had come to an end, but discrimination in fact persisted. When it was time to apply to college, I applied to an all-white (and all-male) Jesuit university. Although I was admitted to the university, I was not welcome and was physically removed from class on the first day. I returned to the school under federal court order and forged a path for change.
When the professors called me and no others by my first name, I raised my voice, “I am Ms. Walker,” and that is what they called me. When my fellow students destroyed my books, coat and supplies, I used the library’s books and excelled in my classes, earning the admiration of my teachers. And, on one day in particular, when some of the boys bumped the jukebox to skip my song, I filled the jukebox with all the money I had so that every song was James Brown’s “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” When the boys stood up to attack me, a larger group of boys surrounded me to protect me.
These were turning points at the university. They taught me that one action can have a tremendous reaction and can change a whole institution. Change starts when someone is brave enough to use her voice and is fueled by others who use theirs to form a chorus of acknowledgment and support. Our voices, when we use them, can change everybody and everything.
Our work is not done. We still have miles to travel to realize the dream of Dr. King and the promise of the Civil Rights Movement, but we can get there together. Our thoughts and feelings translated into actions are a voice. You have a voice. We all have a voice. Now let’s use them!
Board President, Alliance San Diego
Alliance San Diego invites you and your family to join us in the National Day of Service on Monday, January 20th, to create a community mural expressing our voices and vision for a better San Diego.
The event is free and open to the public and begins at 11:30 on Monday, immediately following the All Peoples Celebration. No painting experience required. We will provide paint and brushes. Bring your voice, your creativity, and any photos, poetry, and collage materials you want to use.