Danielle Williams, one of Sacramento’s leading civil rights activists, expects to be among the thousands of Sacramentans marching together on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday Monday. But the 30-year-old warned against what Sacramento native Cornel West has called the “Santa Clausification” of King, a sanitizing and whitewashing of his message focused on the feel-good aspects of his “I Have a Dream” speech rather than King’s call to action against war, poverty, segregation and violence against people of color.
A UC Berkeley graduate and community organizer for Sacramento Area Congregations Together, Williams has protested mass incarceration and street violence, demonstrated for immigration reform and spoken against police shootings and abuse of African Americans nationwide.
Q: How do you plan to celebrate MLK Day 2016?
A: I’m rolling into the holiday in deep reflection and with a heavy heart. There is still space for celebration of progress, that my mother who grew up in Eutawville, S.C., no longer has to drink from blacks-only fountains or take a gun to the polls for protection when she and my grandfather voted, and that we can go to any school we want to. But there also needs to be some fire under our feet, and I will not stand for the Santa Clausification of King, focusing on really safe messages from King to love each other, nonviolence, black and white kids playing together. In this era of #BlackLivesMatter, there are other things King preached about that ring so true today, what he called the “three evils of society”: poverty, racism and war.
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I stand in solidarity with the nationwide movement to reclaim King. Many of us are viewing this day to take action against racial injustice. Let’s celebrate with beautiful choirs, speeches, multiracial marches in commemoration of King, but this celebration will be in vain if we fall short of applying King’s radical message for liberation and racial justice in our city and nation. I see a direct connection between King and the Black Lives Matter movement.
We continue to see in our city that all lives do not matter, that our homeless, formerly incarcerated, undocumented brothers and sisters are living without dignity. We use drones in the Middle East and innocent lives are lost. People say our justice system works, but how does it work when cops in Cleveland are exonerated for immediately shooting 12-year-old Tamir Rice because he had a toy gun? You’ve got the deaths of Trayvon Martin in Florida, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in Staten Island.
Q: What about the growing number of young people who no longer want to identify by race?
A: My little brother, who’s 22, used to say he’s just an American, there’s no need to talk about race, but then he’s seen a clear pattern of black kids getting killed by law enforcement across the country who are being exonerated. He’s a tall, black kid, and he realized very quickly how the world looked at him, how people grabbed their bags tighter on BART.
My older brother, who’s 31, is a very race-neutral guy who works in Silicon Valley. But several years ago when he and a whole bunch of other nerds got together in Roseville for a World of Warcraft tournament, and he went out for pizza, he got pulled over four times in one hour. We don’t have the luxury of operating in the world as if we’re colorblind. My mom would say we’re all American, but we’re black.
Q: If King were alive today, what would he do?
A: I believe King would be standing with us today. He’d say some of the same things he said in his April 16, 1963, letter “From a Birmingham Jail” after his fellow clergy – black and white – had criticized his nonviolent protest movement as “unwise and untimely.” King was heavily attacked for his efforts the same way the Black Lives Matter movement is today. He said “nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”
That’s what Black Lives Matter is doing. If it weren’t for the scores of young people across this nation protesting, marching, interrupting your Christmas shopping, tweeting and Facebooking away, we would not know about Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Renisha McBride, Mike Brown, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, John Crawford, Tanisha Anderson, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray.
Q: How can we solve these problems now?
A: King gave a speech on Palm Sunday in honor of Gandhi, and what I love about it is that oftentimes we stay in our little bubbles, whether it be race or religion. Yet King outlines the shared faith values he as a Christian shares with Gandhi, and how Gandhi liberated his people through nonviolent means.
As an organizer for Sacramento Area Congregations Together, I’ve had the opportunity to work with and alongside Latino, Asian, white (and) Middle Eastern Sacramentans, as well as organize in synagogues, mosques and churches to follow the spirit of King. We build relationships; we learn about our different cultures, faiths, stories, our overall shared values and vision for our community.
But we take it a step further than talking. We stand in solidarity together to build collective power for racial justice. Blacks stand with Latinos to end deportations that split families. White evangelicals stand with blacks and Latinos to combat mass incarceration and community violence. Latinos stand with blacks in Black Lives Matter.