History’s activist heroes should shape perspectives on today’s movements.

By Craig and Marc Kielburger

 

Aung San Suu Kyi is making Canadian history. One of only six foreigners ever granted honorary citizenship, the Myanmar leader will soon become the first to have that honour stripped away —because of her government’s persecution of its Rohingya minority.

The dethroning of one-time heroes is trending. Historical icons—city founders, international statesmen, even prime ministers—are having their legacies negatively re-examined.

This historical rethinking works both ways. Today’s pariahs are sometimes tomorrow’s heroes; history requires a long lens—especially when evaluating social justice. Our challenge is remembering that perspective when looking at social movements in the present, from Black Lives Matter and #MeToo to March for Our Lives and Idle No More.

Take Martin Luther King, who had some unpopular ideas, like his opposition to the Vietnam War. In 1966, two years before his assassination, a Gallup poll found that 63 per cent of Americans held negative opinions of King. Fifty years later, he’s practically an American saint, remembered almost exclusively for his “I have a dream” speech.

Reverend Jesse Jackson wrote in the New York Times that King was an unapologetic radical who is beloved by America—not as a marcher, but as a martyr. King’s evolution from outcast to social justice titan proves that we can’t always see the trajectory of a movement while we’re in it.

It’s tempting to think we’d all have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with King at the Lincoln Memorial, or joined the Freedom Riders on buses bound for the still-segregated south. Maybe you’re now wrestling with whether to join the next Women’s March.

Looking back, most American’s didn’t support the protests for civil rights and thought King’s efforts did more harm than good. Closer to home, the majority of Canadians were opposed to the women’s suffrage movement in its early years. Few people stood publicly against the horrors of residential schools.

“Things we take for granted—the end of segregation, same sex marriage, women’s ability to vote—were once considered radical ideas,” says Peter Dreier, professor of politics at Occidental College in California.

Today, King is universally embraced, and the Famous Five are viewed as Canadian social justice heroes. Reconciliation is a national priority. Let’s keep those things in mind when today’s movements are being criticized. When protesters are said to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. When sexual assault survivors are accused of using the court of public opinion.

We’ve long drawn inspiration from King’s life and use his example of service to inspire others to give back. Admittedly, we’ve not always thought about how time has changed his image. It’s our collective challenge to see him—and all those who’ve advanced causes before him—reflected not just in our history books, but in those championing the same ideas today.

King was accused of going too far, demanding too much, too soon. The same criticism is often leveled at activists today. But if we learn from the past, giving groups today space to build their movement and society time to follow along, how will we feel about them in 50 years?

It’s too late to go back and march with King. It’s not too late to join a movement today.

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