Finding the courage to be change-makers in our communities

January 11, 2024

One year ago, artist Hank Willis Thomas unveiled his sculpture, "The Embrace," honoring the legacies of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King. The work stands as a celebration of the couple’s historical significance — but also an enduring commitment to advancing racial justice within the city of Boston. 

King is widely renowned, of course, but “The Embrace” offers us a more intimate perspective on the activist's life — one that forgoes the usual hagiography in favor of humanity. Although its sheer size highlights King’s significant historical impact, it also embodies his vision of a “beloved community,” celebrating bonds that range from the interpersonal all the way to the global. King knew that we are defined not just by individual achievements, but by the relationships we build. 

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These are the roots of community-driven organizing, action, and solidarity that shaped King’s formative years and professional journey. King himself was shaped by his environment, by the people that loved him and inspired him. For example, his father, Martin Luther King Sr., who provided a model of ministerial work and dedication to community activism, or his college mentor, Benjamin Mays, or the ministers he succeeded at Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, Massachusetts, and throughout Montgomery, Alabama, where he eventually moved. 

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It’s easy to read this list of famous locals and consign them to the realm of myth, to think that we’ll never see the likes of King of his milieu ever again. It’s so easy to forget how ordinary these places were, and are. The same hopes and dreams that animated King and his friends, neighbors, and contemporaries are still alive today in Roxbury, in Brockton, in Springfield, and Pittsfield. And if you don’t believe me, I invite you to come knock on a few doors. 

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Last year, our Racial Justice Program launched a new campaign called BIPOC to the Ballot Box to engage and energize registered voters in cities and towns with large and growing communities of color. Over the course of 2023, our Action Team volunteers held over 2,800 conversations with both dedicated and disillusioned voters across Massachusetts, each interaction providing an invaluable opportunity to hear about the various hopes and frustrations of community members. We heard concerns ranging from constraints on free speech to voter suppression, to government surveillance, to book banning and overzealous policing. And as we reflect on the first year of this campaign in light of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we can’t help but be reminded of the historic tactics of government-led discrimination and suppression that animated the Civil Rights Movement — because it’s so clear these problems still plague us today.  

But if the problems still plague us, so too does the spirit of King and his compatriots live within us. We've consistently seen this in recent times, with some of the largest popular movements in this nation’s history. We saw it in 2020, when thousands rallied from Roxbury's Nubian Square to the State House under the #BlackLivesMatter movement, unified in condemnation of the tragic deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement. And we saw it in 2022, when grandmothers, mothers, and their daughters alike protested the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade on the cusp of its 50th anniversary. And we see it in our communities’ vigorous efforts to preserve the very memory and history of King’s struggle in the face of cynical, politically motivated censorship. Diversity in education serves as an intellectual, social, and cultural foundation for the many civil liberties we tirelessly fight for. The banning of books across the nation — standing at a record high for both introduced and passed legislation in 2023 — serves as a major bellwether for the health of our democracy.  

It’s inspiring and invigorating to remember campaigns like these — just as it’s inspiring to read about King. But MLK Day is about more than re-reading his most celebrated works and venerating the man himself. The holiday is best observed as a day of service, and what better way to honor the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement in the upcoming election year than by volunteering to inspire the next generation of voters. Help us build a powerful team of activists!  

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King was more than just a great orator, writer, and scholar; he was a relationship builder, an organizer, an activist — and that’s something we all have the power to do. If you want to give it a shot, our BIPOC to the Ballot Box campaign is preparing for the upcoming election, and the ACLU of Massachusetts Action Team could always use some new members. 

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What is the Action Team?

The ACLU of Massachusetts Action Team is powered by volunteers working in their local communities and at the state level to protect and expand civil rights and civil liberties. 

If you are looking to advocate for civil rights and civil liberties but don’t know where to start, the Action Team is the perfect place for you!  

Learn More!