The Rev. France A. Davis recalled participating in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama as both exciting and scary — “exciting in that we knew we were making changes; scary because we didn’t ever know for sure how safe we were,” Davis said.

Davis, who’s been the full-time pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City since 1974, was a student at the time of the freedom march. Martin Luther King Jr. led the march, a demonstration in support of enforcing voting rights and ending segregation.

“What was special and unique about the experience was that I was a young student and Dr. King was an adult who could communicate regardless of who he was talking to, including me,” Davis said.

The freedom march ultimately raised support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Today, on the holiday commemorating King’s legacy, Davis and others have weighed in on how King might have responded to current social and civil rights issues, such as police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Confronting racial issues

Davis said King would be “seriously upset” about the violence associated with today’s movements, and he would urge people to join non-violent, civil disobedience movements.

“I think that there is less being done from a non-violent perspective to solve issues these days than there was in those days,” Davis said. “Dr. King was completely committed and the people who were part of his scene (were) committed to nonviolence as the only tool to resolve issues of social concern.”

Though Davis said today’s movements could have the same impact as the Civil Rights era, he doubts they will because there’s no primary leader unifying the movements. He added if people want to create change today, they should organize themselves, pursue one problem at a time and focus on that one problem until it’s resolved.

“There is no centralized approach to the civil rights and social issues of high society,” Davis said.

BYU history professor Cameron McCoy said he thinks King would be frustrated that “people are still simply marching.”

Although marching can get attention, he said institutional change will make the biggest difference today. This means removing statues of white supremacists from town squares; removing the names of bigots from college buildings; and removing barriers between governments, police departments and schools.

McCoy, who holds a doctorate degree from the University of Texas at Austin, also said while earlier movements were about basic rights such as voting, today’s movements are more about accessibility to inalienable rights that all minorities should intrinsically have.

“I think it’s important that we confront people with these things,” McCoy said. “(We need to) dig into a varied past that is definitely uncomfortable and ask those questions that many white people don’t like to confront or face.”

Another thing he said sets apart today’s movements from past movements is they’re not as grassroots based, and people of all demographics are participating. For example, high-profile black athletes such as former NFL player Colin Kaepernick kneel during the national anthem to protest unfair treatment of racial minorities, and white athletes are joining them. 

McCoy said many people today avoid getting near civil and social rights issues because they’re not personally affected by them.

“And because of that, (they think), ‘Why should I educate myself further on a matter that I’m more than likely never going to encounter?’” he said. “I definitely have heard those exact words from students.”

Ordinary people, extraordinary actions

But King might be heartened by today’s civil rights movements in some ways, according to BYU history professor Rebecca de Schweinitz.

“I think in many ways, he would be heartened by the willingness of individuals and groups of people to engage in creative battles, for the outrage they’re showing and (for) standing up against inhumanity and against injustice,” de Schweinitz said.

De Schweinitz holds a doctorate degree in history from the University of Virginia; she also contributed research to the creation of American Girl doll Melody Ellison, an African-American girl living in Detroit, Michigan during the Civil Rights era.

Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo
BYU Professor Rebecca de Schweinitz holds the American Girl Doll she contributed research to. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

De Schweinitz said what she hoped to convey with the American Girl doll project, as in all her work, is everyday people have both the capacity and the responsibility to stand up for what’s right.

“We tend to think of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as being just about King (rather) than about a much larger movement of which King has come to symbolize,” she said. “But the successes of the movement … were possible not just because of King, but because of the extraordinary actions of ordinary people across the country.”

De Schweinitz also said King wasn’t focused only on ending segregation and securing voting rights — he also hoped to create a more humanist, just society that addressed poverty, racial violence and economic disparity.

De Schweinitz said when today’s activists face intense criticism, it’s important to remember King was an unpopular critic of American society in his day and was arrested for acting in ways that were then deemed inappropriate.

“We have kind of this sanitized public memory of King, and we often forget that he was seen as bold and challenging,” she said.

De Schweinitz suggested those wishing to create real change today look at King’s legacy to see it takes all kinds of people working at all different levels to make a difference.

“King himself had a particular set of skills and talents that were utilized for good in the movement, but so did countless other people, and what they did mattered,” she said. “We can really achieve great things and move forward, not just individually, but collectively as people.”

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