As I watch and participate in the memorials throughout Atlanta honoring the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. as we mark the 50th year of his assassination, I am reminded of a story my late aunt, Claudette Mathews, a Civil Rights Movement veteran in her own right, used to tell me about working for King at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
She used to say that whenever he walked into SCLC’s offices on Auburn Avenue, he would always say good morning to everyone; to employees downstairs in the print shop to the executive assistants and receptionist located upstairs.
This story, coupled with the recent passing of my “Movement Aunt” Rita Samuels, and the significance of this time affirms my belief that I am standing on the shoulders of those named and nameless others who gave their lives for a better Atlanta, South and United States.
While well-known leaders of the Civil Rights Movement are worthy of our recognition and respect, there are nameless others who I am remembering today because without their contribution there would not know a Martin Luther King, Jr., an Andrew Young, a Hosea Williams, or a John Lewis. I want to take the opportunity to recognize two leaders in particular who left us last month right before the anniversary of the assassination.
First, my aforementioned aunt, *Rita Samuels, whose life started at the bottom in Forsyth, Ga., but went all the way to the White House. She worked with King organizing community service efforts.
That work caught the attention of former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, who made her his coordinator of the Governor’s Council on Human Relations – the first African American female on a Georgia governor’s personal staff. She went on to serve as a counselor in the Carter White House and came back home to serve in former Mayor Andrew Young’s administration.
Another leader I want to highlight is one you will not find on Google beyond the obituary that was just published. His name was Ralph Worrell.
After emigrating to New York City from Barbados, he got involved with the labor movement who lent their support to King’s work in the South through Worrell who became King’s “body man.” For more than 50 years, Worrell was the figure in the corner in service to King and the observer of a history that many of us will never know but benefit from every day.
Auntie Rita, Ralph Worrell, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bernard Lee, the Rev. E. Randell Osborne, Lester Hankerson, the Rev. James Orange, Leon Hall (former Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall’s father), Elaine Tomlin, the Rev. Willie Bolden, John Bascom, and the Rev. Fred Bennette — and countless others — are all names that most of us will never know but like King, gave their lives for the hope of better city, region, and nation.
They are a true reflection of what is possible if we all chose a path towards justice – a transformative change that we as doers might not see, but our children will look back and say, “thank you.” I believe that Dr. King would want these names remembered at this time too.
Who am I you ask? I am Nathaniel Smith, literal child of the Civil Rights Movement, “Dirty South” hip-hop, and Atlanta. I am also the Founder and Chief Equity Officer of the Partnership for Southern Equity, where we work every day to make communities better for all.
The Atlanta Voice has graciously asked me to pen a regular column that I would like to call, “Equity Matters,” to help bring the story of equity matters to this city, the region and the American South that I love so dearly because its land, culture and people have made me who I am.
Although we have accomplished a lot since the Civil Rights Movement African Americans continue to struggle. The fight for equality has opened up unimaginable opportunities for many, but Atlanta is still the first place in the nation for income inequality.
According to the Equality of Opportunity Project, a child born into poverty in Atlanta has a less than five percent chance to move up in the economy, and more than 80 percent of Atlanta’s African-American children live in areas of high poverty. Developments like the Atlanta Beltline and others have begun to create market pressures in many Atlanta communities that vulnerable populations call home.
The destiny of our communities as a whole will be dependent on our ability to support our most vulnerable. It is what King called, the “network of mutuality.”
“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” said King. That means we are all in this together. We can no longer afford to lock our doors and ignore the plight of our neighbors. What happens above I-20 effects Southwest Atlanta. What happens on the east side of I-285 in Stone Mountain has far-reaching effects on the west side in Douglasville. The future of the entire Atlanta metropolitan region is in our ability to change the statistics above.
But many people have asked me, where are our current leaders? Where are the people willing to make the sacrifices to move our city forward? I have heard this more than ever as we mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, and with the passing of nameless others. My friends, my answer to those questions is simple – we are the leaders we have been waiting for.
I have seen Black Panther and would love to go to Wakanda, but Black Panther is not coming. It is up to us – all of us. We have the solutions and influence to make Atlanta better for everyone. However, do we have the courage and will to transform Atlanta into the Beloved Community Dr. King so eloquently discussed.
The region, the South, and the nation are looking towards Atlanta for transformational leaders and solutions. We were the logistical home of Civil Rights Movement in the past. I believe Atlanta will be a key anchor for the type of change we need for the South and nation again.
I love this city, the region, and the South, and this “Equity Matters” column will be focused on realizing that love through truth. It is in love that we will explore the truth of the many issues of injustice and inequity in our city, but also hope and solutions for a better tomorrow.
The 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination reminds me that one man or woman regardless of how spiritual or anointed they are cannot make change happen alone.
My charge to you is that as the named and nameless others transition, that we take up the banner as the next generation of people, who are given the responsibility to create a new South and new nation where everyone can prosper from this transformation. A brighter future will not be realized without a bolder today.
Nathaniel Smith is the founder and chief equity officer of the Partnership for Southern Equity. More information can be found at www.psequity.org. Smith is a graduate of Morehouse College.
*The Atlanta Voice published the obituary of Rita Jackson Samuels in their March 30-April 5 edition.