“The civil rights movement didn’t begin in Montgomery and it didn’t end in the 1960s. It continues to this very minute,” is a Julian Bond quote Kenneth Cohen looks to as motivation in his work as president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Northeast Queens Branch. For Cohen and other black American leaders, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a reminder of the ongoing fight for equality.
“Dr. King’s holiday is a significant weekend for all African Americans, but for black people in general. I celebrate his legacy by remembering his work daily in what I do,” said Cohen, who also works as regional director of the NAACP State Conference.
King boldly advocated for equal treatment and rights for black citizens throughout the 1950s until he was assassinated in 1968 at the age of 39. As the central icon of the civil rights movement, King is fondly remembered for his “I have a dream” speech, in which he outlines hopes that peace between races, between “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners,” will one day be reached.
“It is important to celebrate the man and live the dream, but it is important that we keep the dream alive,” continued Cohen. “Challenges to his work continue as they did in his life. It is our job to meet those challenges and squash them as they arise.”
Candace Prince-Modeste, president of the NAACP Jamaica Branch, agreed that the modern struggles of black Americans are not much different than they had been during King’s lifetime.
“I feel like during the ’50s and ’60s there were probably and arguably a few more immediate needs that black Americans worked toward attaining. Today, we fight to regain or reattain what we had gained back then,” said Prince-Modeste, explaining that the right to work was an immediate need that was attained during the civil rights movement, but that black Americans today continue to fight for access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics career opportunities.
Prince-Modeste believes that King’s core values live on through the NAACP’s work, which often aligns with organizations that “may not primarily reflect the organization’s mission” of eliminating race-based discrimination.
“You’ll see the NAACP stand up for immigration reform or LGBTQ rights,” she said. “It’s not our first and foremost goal, but if Hispanics are marginalized it’s still appropriate for us to stand up for them ... The core issues are still the same in terms of equity and economics.”
Prince-Modeste remembers King in her advocacy work and as an inspiration everyday not just on his national holiday, Jan. 20.
“He’s referred to as a black leader, but he’s an American icon period,” she said. “He’s up there with Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.”
Despite counting King as a core role model, Prince-Modeste learned to look for inspiration wherever it can be found.
“When you’re talking about leadership, look at anyone who inspires you to be better. Folks like King that we know today started as someone unrecognizable. Look everywhere for guidance.”