Dr. Jessica Johnson: Yolanda King speaks up for learning complete civil rights history

As we celebrate past extraordinary achievements of African Americans during Black History Month, we are also seeing history in the making with young activists like Yolanda Renee King, the granddaughter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most phenomenal leaders of the 20th century.

Yolanda, 13, is the daughter of Martin Luther King III and Andrea Waters King. The middle schooler first stepped into the national spotlight four years ago when advocating for better gun control laws at the student-led March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. At just 9 years old at the time, Yolanda’s youthful naivete showed when she stated that she had a dream for “a gun-free world,” but her genuineness could not be questioned. Now a more seasoned speaker with a better understanding of her family’s great oratory legacy in ministry and social justice activism, Yolanda has taken up their mantle in fighting for voting rights and offering her thoughts on critical race theory.

If Dr. King could witness how Yolanda is developing into a leading voice of her generation, I’m sure he would go back into his vast sermon archives and pull out his Feb. 4, 1968, “Drum Major Instinct” address that he gave at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the church his father, Martin Luther King Sr., pastored for 44 years. I believe Dr. King would call his granddaughter a budding drum major for justice, and I’m also certain he would say that Yolanda’s passion to help others reflects her parents practicing Proverbs 22:6, that is, training Yolanda “up in the way” she should go.

In getting into the ongoing struggle for voting rights, Yolanda is joining the fight to uphold one of the most significant accomplishments of her grandfather, the 1965 Voting Rights Act signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In an interview with NBC in January, Yolanda said that she and her family had been backing the passage of the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. A major objective of these bills is to ensure that all people can take part in the election process by making voting more accessible, such as expanding voting by mail and establishing automatic voter registration. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act has a specific focus on voter discrimination and recommends a federal review of changes to voting rules that would disproportionately affect minority communities. Yolanda has been urging young people who are not old enough to vote to get involved in the current movement, calling voting one of our “fundamental rights.”

In addressing critical race theory in a recent NPR interview, Yolanda expressed the importance of teaching the complete history of the civil rights movement. She pointed out how many schools just go over the surface of civil rights but do not delve into other parts of her grandfather’s leadership or examine the vital roles Black women had, such as her grandmother, Coretta Scott King. This is something that I have observed when I have asked my students about the civil rights history they learned in high school. For example, most of them only knew the basic outline of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, mainly one of the most famous parts of him saying that he had a dream that his four children would one day be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. However, most of my students did not know that Dr. King called out “the unspeakable horrors of police brutality” and stated that America had “defaulted on (its) promissory note of “unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as far as “her citizens of color are concerned.” Learning civil rights history in a more in-depth manner like this isn’t always comfortable, but it is inspiring to see that Yolanda is speaking up about it.

One of the most encouraging things I’ve learned about Yolanda is that she is participating in the present social justice movement on her own and is not being pressured by her family. She already feels at ease speaking in front of large crowds, and I also wouldn’t be surprised if she becomes a minister, as preaching is certainly in her DNA. Whatever God has in store for her, it will be amazing to watch as she comes of age.

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Dr. Jessica Johnson

Guest Column

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Email her at [email protected] @JjSmojc