A group of high school students particpate in a Community Leadership Institute, sponsored by Just Communities. | Credit: Courtesy

In his 1964 book Why We Can’t Wait, written after the infamous Birmingham campaign where fire hoses and police dogs were turned on Black children and adults, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted, “Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles of racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or to feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it.”

Three years later, on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, while there to support striking garbage workers in the context of the multi-racial Poor People’s Campaign, Dr. King spoke out forcefully against the Vietnam War. During his remarks, however, he argued that it was necessary to go beyond Vietnam, beyond opposing that unjust, immoral, and violent war. He understood, tragically, that the United States had been at war ever since its inception and thus more far-ranging action was necessary. “A radical revolution in values,” he declared, targeting the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism” was the only solution that might save the United States from its “tragic death.”

Just last month, the Santa Barbara Unified School District (SBUSD) board held its first in-person meeting in two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Focusing on racial incidents targeting Black students, one speaker took the opportunity to criticize Just Communities, a community-based social justice organization dedicated to eliminating all forms of injustice and inequality, blaming it and its previous ties with SBUSD for these events.

After making these assertions with no evidence whatsoever, the speaker then invoked Dr. King’s oft-quoted words from his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in which he talked about one day his children might be judged by the “content of their character rather than by the color of their skin.” Extrapolating from this one sentence, this speaker adduced that Dr. King was a conservative who shunned race-specific remedies for ameliorating racial injustices. Nothing could be further from the truth.

On multiple occasions, Dr. King spoke about the need for “compensatory treatment,” stating in a 1965 interview with Alex Haley, “Few people reflect that for two centuries the Negro was enslaved and robbed of any wages—potential accrued wealth which would have been the legacy of his descendants. All of America’s wealth today could not adequately compensate its Negroes for his centuries of exploitation and humiliation. It is an economic fact that a program such as I propose would certainly cost far less than any computation of two centuries of unpaid wages plus accumulated interest. In any case, I do not intend that this program of economic aid should apply only to the Negro; it should benefit the disadvantaged of all races.” (emphasis added)

As this and other quotes attest, Dr. King was a radical. One quote lifted from an iconic speech does not define Dr. King, and it should not be used, therefore, to tarnish the fine work that Just Communities has done for two decades. Far-right organizations like Fair Education Santa Barbara sued Just Communities, making a series of unsubstantiated allegations, in 2018. After a three-year protracted legal battle, a three-justice panel unanimously decided to throw out Fair Education’s lawsuit, with the Superior Court writing, “SBUSD’s express purpose in deciding to provide anti-bias training was as a means of eradicating the persistent educational achievement gap among minority students. This is clearly a lawful purpose which is reasonably characterized as incidental to a valid educational purpose.”

As one independent study conducted in 2013 confirmed, Just Communities’ work has closed the achievement, or as we prefer to call it, the “opportunity” gap for Latina/o/x students in SBUSD. One speaker during the SBUSD board meeting, recycling dubious claims from Fair Education’s failed lawsuit, questioned the organization’s effectiveness, even going as far as to blame the recent anti-Black incidents in the district on Just Communities, which is totally dedicated to uprooting anti-Black racism as well as all forms of racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, poverty, and other forms of injustice and violence. In other words, the speakers cast more doubt on Just Communities, claiming that the organization still receives funding from SBUSD when there is no longer any contractual agreement between Just Communities and the district.

Speakers also took time to name and shame Jarrod Schwartz, Just Communities’s former executive director, who left the organization two years ago. Finally, it is a complete fabrication to contend that Just Communities received “millions” from SBUSD. Such assertions place the organization in a “false light” and make it appear as if something illicit took place between Just Communities and SBUSD, claims that were found to have no merit in Fair Education’s lawsuit.

Just Communities is moving into its third decade of existence. We are proud of the work that we have previously done, and we are currently undergoing a re-envisioning process. We hope to continue co-conspiring and collaborating with many other social justice organizations — Future Leaders of America, Healing Justice, CAUSE, Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project (MICOP), the Immigrant Legal Defense Center, Gateway Educational Services, and others who have been working for broad-based, transformative change along the lines that Dr. King articulated so long ago. We acknowledge that our organization must change from within as well, focusing more squarely on anti-Blackness and the issues and concerns of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities (BIPOC) and repairing relationships and the harm that we have done.

Just Communities calls on all people and organizations of good faith and conscience to attend future SBUSD board meetings, wearing red as a goodwill gesture to ensure the safety of all and to engage in high-quality democratic conversations. Disagreements may arise during these sessions; when they do, let us all work together to be civil and neighborly towards each other.

Just Communities is still very much concerned about educational disparities and opportunity gaps and hope to continue that work for many years to come. Our dream closely resembles Dr. King’s — we need to radically restructure our society before it’s too late. We, as a nation, need to acknowledge our “original sins” and actively confront all forms of injustice and to make the “crooked places straight”; that is, making sure America is “true to what it said on paper.”


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