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Here are the Martin Luther King Jr. words that inspire today’s social justice leaders

More than a half a century has passed since Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial calling for freedom and equality — and the fight for social justice appears to be far from over.

CNN asked activists and athletes fighting for equality in the Black, Latino, Asian American, Native American and Muslim American communities to reflect on King’s words and his legacy at a time when America is deeply divided after last year’s racial reckoning and the insurrection at the US Capitol earlier this month.

Each of them selected a quote from the civil rights movement leader and shared why it resonates with them. Here are their responses, some of which have been edited for clarity:

Dolores Huerta

Huerta, a Mexican American civil rights icon, formed a farmworkers union with Cesar Chavez and is president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation. She chose a quote from a Dr. King’s speech titled “The Three Evils of Society.”

Why did Huerta pick that quote?

“Racism is a sickness. Many Americans with that sickness stormed the nation’s Capitol recently as racism feeds fascism. Racism stems from ignorance and creates, hate, fear violence and destruction,” Huerta said.

“Dr. Martin Luther King warned us that racism threatened the very foundation of our democracy. Racism began with slavery, the oppression of workers, the subjugation of women and children.”

Huerta said that a national effort is needed to save the United States’ democracy from fascism and to end the racism which “is so ingrained in our body politic.”

“We have no choice but to heal.”

Patrisse Cullors

Cullors is an artist, political strategist and co-founder and executive director of Black Lives Matter. She chose a quote from Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

Why did Cullors pick that quote?

“On January 6, the world witnessed a failed attempted coup by White supremacists extremists. These are the same people who have taunted, humiliated and threatened Black Lives Matter members and our leadership. And while these White supremacists are scary and dangerous, our movement has historically seen the White liberal as a barrier to the freedom of Black people,” Cullors said.

“To keep it plain. We need White folks to show up. Showing up in more ways than just saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ or putting ‘Black Lives Matter’ on their social media,” Cullors added.

“We need white folks to show up by following the leadership of Black folks, the very same Black folks who have transformed this country over and over again. On this MLK day let’s remind ourselves that Black people deserve dignity, care and power.”

Nneka Ogwumike

Ogwumike is a WNBA player and president of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association. She chose the following quote:

Why did Ogwumike pick those words?

“It is not enough for good people to know they are good for goodness to take place,” she said. “We must hold ourselves to actionable accountability that plants the seeds for sustainable change; allowing both its roots and branches to grow over time, naturally and intentionally.”

Nihad Awad

Awad is the national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He chose a quote from Dr. King’s book “A Gift of Love: Sermons from Strength to Love and Other Preachings.”

Why did Awad pick those words?

He said the quote speaks to the “five years of indoctrination and lies by (President) Donald Trump and his enablers created a poisonous environment in which millions of Americans believe in falsehoods and conspiracy theories that make our society and the world less stable and less peaceful.”

Sruti Suryanarayanan

Suryanarayanan is a spokeswoman for the advocacy group South Asian Americans Leading Together. She chose a few sentences from Dr. King’s 1967 book “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”

Why did Suryanarayanan pick those words?

“Building a just world starts with the abolition of White supremacy, in all its forms — structural, institutional, and personal,” Suryanarayanan said. “But as non-Black people of color, we must also unpack and combat our own complicity in White supremacy and American imperialism. Without the deconstruction of anti-Black racism, no liberation is possible.”

Kimberlé Crenshaw

Crenshaw is the co-founder and executive director of the African American Policy Forum. She chose a quote from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Why did Crenshaw pick that quote?

“Martin Luther King Jr.’s framing of the failures and promises of America makes clear how the nation’s unaddressed deficits become the justification for even greater disenfranchisement and expropriation. The right-wing attacks on his dream and the physical embodiment of the ideological assault on multicultural democracy that we witnessed last week are a repudiation of the very idea that there exists a ‘promissory note’,” Crenshaw said.

“King was often critical — most famously in his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ — of those moderates who chronically advocated for a ‘more convenient season’ to pursue racial justice. On this Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, we should acknowledge — in the face of so much tragedy and depravity — that we are never going to be in a stable position when it comes to injustice. And it is from the illusion of stability that the further deterioration of Black people’s material status occurs. The fight for justice must continue — always.”

Crystal Echo Hawk

Echo Hawk is the founder and executive director of IllumiNative, a national Native-led non-profit group. She chose an excerpt from Dr. King’s book “Why We Can’t Wait.”

Why did Echo Hawk pick that quote?

“Dr. King taught us that racial injustice in the United States started with the arrival of colonizers on Native land. The violence these settlers used first against Indigenous peoples, then against Black slaves, was predicated on White supremacist beliefs. White supremacy is upheld by false origin myths about the United States, ignored by whitewashing brutal anti-Native and anti-Black policies, and sustained by stereotyped, inaccurate portrayals of Native people and people of color in popular culture,” Echo Hawk said.

“To create a just world, all people of every race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender expression, and age, must stand together and tell truthful stories about our past and hopeful stories about our future.”

A’ja Wilson

Wilson, who plays for the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces, is a member of the league’s Social Justice Council. She is also the founder of A’ja Wilson Foundation, which supports children who struggle with dyslexia. She chose a Dr. King quote that gives her hope.

Why did Wilson pick that quote?

“There is so much going on in the world right now. So many disappointing, tragic and gut-wrenching moments,” Wilson said. “We all have to keep our foot on the gas but historically, we have always come together as a people to celebrate the wins, big or small, and that’s one of the greatest things about our culture. We can never give up.”

Jaren Jackson Jr.

Jackson Jr. plays for the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies. He chose a Dr. King quote that he said “resonated” with him the most.

Why did Jackson Jr. pick that quote?

“This quote resonated with me the most given our current climate because we have become so polarized. We no longer sit down and have conversations about our differences and as Dr. King said it is purely out of fear of what we don’t know about each other,” Jackson Jr. said.

“I believe in order for us to move past the horrible events of the past few months as well as the past several decades, we need to have open and honest dialogue. (We need) a conversation where no matter your race, religion, sexual orientation or any other difference, we listen with compassion and find a common ground. If the pandemic taught us nothing else, we must value time and we must talk to each other. We can’t let fear dictate who we are. We gotta be better than that. It’s time to achieve Dr. King’s dream.”

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