Symone Sanders was on the campaign trail with Sen. Bernie Sanders. It was 2016 and the senator was hopscotching around the country in his run for the presidency; Symone was his national press secretary.
In a northeastern city, she was inside a building, heading for one of the senator’s political rallies; he was right behind her. As they walked, Symone, who is black, heard someone behind her shouting, “Ma’am, move! Step to the side! Ma’am, move!”
“I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, that lady better move,’” recalled Symone, keynote speaker for Martin Luther King Day at UTC.
Her left arm suddenly was grabbed by a state trooper, who yanked her roughly to one side. She realized she was the woman being told to get out of the way.
As the trooper dragged her, another member of Sanders’ campaign staff, Paul (Symone doesn’t want to give his last name), grabbed her from the other side, pulling her out of the grip of trooper, who quickly apologized when told who Symone was.
“Sometimes we are faced with a choice in the moment to act, to do something. And the spirit of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. demands that, much like Paul, you pull me back, you stop the entourage and you intervene,” she told the audience in the University Center Auditorium on Jan. 25.
Paul was “standing in the gap for someone else,” one of the five cornerstone beliefs that made King a “radical revolutionary,” said Sanders, a Democratic political strategist and a commentator on such news networks as CNN, NPR, BET and in newspapers such as the Washington Post.
“I think in these times, in this day and age, we need a few more radical revolutionaries,” she said.
Many folks know King through his “I Have a Dream” speech, through his philosophy of non-violence, through “We shall overcome,'” she said. “I think that is absolutely an important part of who he was and his legacy, but it wasn’t all he was.”
In her 30-minute speech, her voice often rising in fiery volume for emphasis, she spelled out the five steps that must be taken to be a “radical revolutionary.”
Buck the status quo, take a risk
After the passage of the federal 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, King was asked that, since he had gotten what he was fighting for, why was he continuing to fight for more? Others were satisfied with the strides blacks had made with those laws being enacted, Sanders said, but not King, who said genuine equality meant economic equality.
“What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter who doesn’t own enough money to buy a hamburger?’” she said, quoting King.
“We need people who are willing to take a risk, who are willing to speak up in the face of adversity,” she added. “That’s what Dr. King’s dream, if you will, was really all about.”
Stand in the gap for others
A person must make “conscious decisions every single day if you’re to stand up or stand in the gap for somebody else,” she said, like Paul in Sen. Sanders’ entourage. “It’s not easy.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, I came here today to tell you that some of us are not taking stock of who is being locked out of the proverbial building. We are not assessing who we may be looking over or hurting in the process … And if we truly want to be radical revolutionaries in the spirit of Dr. King, we have to always think about who is not at the table.”
She pointed to a TV interview King did in 1967 with NBC News where it was obvious how uncomfortable he was during the interview, she said. Despite the fights that he had waged to achieve the gains that blacks and the poor had made over the previous several years, “he is visibly uncomfortable with where we are in America at that time,” she said.
Those gains had been made “at bargain rates,” King said, but future goals of eradicating slums, getting rid of poverty, providing jobs and repairing economic inequality was going cost the government billions of dollars. It was going to be difficult to convince politicians to spend that money.
“You have to be willing to be uncomfortable if you really want to do any type of community-change, social-justice work,” Sanders said. “If you’re not uncomfortable, I’m here to tell you, you’re not actually doing the work.”
Too many organizations trying to bring about social and political change only think about the near-future and have no idea what’s going to happen beyond that, she said.
“Where are all the 10-, 15-, 20-year plans?” she asked.
As a college student, she interned in Union-Pacific Railroad’s corporate communications department, she said. “They had like a 100-year plan. Nobody at the company was going to be around when that 100-year plan was executed, by they had one.
“We have to ask ourselves: Are we being strategic in our coalition-building? Are we being strategic in our community-building, needle-moving work?”
Take on allies as well as adversaries
When King continued to push for income equality and social justice after the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts were passed, some of his allies in those fights backed away, not willing to continue helping. King realized those people had worked with him only because of the unfair and appalling treatment of blacks by racists like George Wallace and Bull Connor, the police chief in Birmingham, Ala.
King’s former allies “were not specifically responding to issues of justice and inequality,” and he understood that “we’re going to have to hold some people’s feet to the fire,” Sanders said.
“Honestly, far too many of us are not willing to take on our allies. We’re are very ready to take on our adversaries.”