Meet the young activists pushing for racial equity in West Michigan

Black History Month

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Three centuries after Black people were stolen from their homeland and brought to the shores of American, the NAACP of Greater Grand Rapids was born.

“We actually chartered in 1919, which was amazing in itself,” Cle Jackson, the president of the organization, said.

Back then, the group included 50 Black men and women fighting for equal access to housing, health care and opportunity in a land built in the backs of their ancestors.

“We had to be activists. We had to save ourselves,” Jackson said.

Jackson says a lot has changed since 1919, but the fight for equity continues. In the last few years, several grassroots groups emerged to lead new movements in hopes of Black liberation.

“We can’t settle for less. We have to continue to fight. This fight has been going on for generations and generations,” said Aly Bates of Justice for Black Lives, an organization that formed in the wake of George Floyd’s 2020 death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

Among its first accomplishments was getting the city of Grand Rapids to dedicate Monroe Center to Grand Rapids native Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed by Louisville, Kentucky, police when her apartment was raided in March 2020.

“A lot of people don’t know that she’s from here and I felt it was important we continue to say her name and fight for justice in the city that she was born in,” Bates said.

In their first year, JFBL hosted a sit-in protest along Fulton Street in Grand Rapids. Thousands of people lined the street, chanting and asking for Grand Rapids police to reform its policies. The group has also spent time protesting a statue in Allendale Township that features a Confederate soldier and an enslaved child. 

Not far away in Kalamazoo, Black youths formed Uplift Kalamazoo in the summer of 2020.

“I just felt a pull and I think we all did. We knew that something had to change and this time was different,” King Ryan, the executive director of the organization, said.

Members of the Uplift Kalamazoo can also frequently be found on the frontlines at protests.

“I’m willing to die for Black people. Whatever it takes to get equal rights, whatever it takes to get equity, I’m willing to do that,” Uplift Kalamazoo outreach leader Khadijah Brown said.

In addition to protests, both JFBL and Uplift Kalamazoo also have a big focus on community service. Members of JFBL recently spent the weekend shoveling snow in Grand Rapids neighborhoods. They say they also volunteered time and resources to the people living in a homeless encampment at Heartside Park after the city forced them to leave in January.

Uplift Kalamazoo often works with the houseless community in their area providing food and essential items. They have also raised funds and replaced doors for a local family after they say police raided their home.

“Our main goal is sustainability. How do we keep the Black family not only alive but thriving?” Ryan explained.

Throughout the years, younger organizations have also been able to use social media as a tool for social justice. Hashtags help to spread information to a wider range of people and social media apps help to connect them with other leaders and potential allies.

“As millennials in this social age, we’re just tapped in a little bit more and in a different way. And we never want to erase the people that came before us and the lives that were lost in this fight. We stand on their shoulders, but we also have to push it further,” Ryan said.

The new generation of activists believes it has made progress but said there is still work to be done.

“I know that I probably won’t be able to see the fruit of my labor but as long as my kids as able to enjoy the fruit of my labor, that’s all that matters to me,” Khadijah Brown said.

Cle Jackson of the NAACP GR, who has been an activist for many years, says if there is any advice he would offer to young activists, it would be to remain diligent.

“Police injustice will continue to happen, discrimination and harassment of many kinds will continue to happen, so you have to stick to it. You have to stay the course,” Jackson said.

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