San Jose’s Black leaders reflect on Martin Luther King, Kamala Harris
Rev. Steve Pinkston, of Maranatha Christian Center, joined other religious and community leaders at San Jose City Hall on Nov. 4 calling for a peaceful reaction to the presidential elections. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    This Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is like no other.

    The traditional parades, luncheons and celebrations have been replaced by tiny squares on a Zoom call. America is coming off a year of civil unrest and reckoning with systemic racism after the police killing of George Floyd. And many are still reeling from four years of President Donald Trump whose rhetoric and policies often targeted people of color.

    But there’s a silver lining this year, and it gives Black leaders in Silicon Valley a sense of hope. On Wednesday, Kamala Harris, who is Black and southeast Asian, will be sworn into office — breaking barriers and becoming the only person of color to serve as U.S. vice president.

    “This is an opportune time in our social and political climate,” said LaToya Fernandez, an educator, Black Lives Matter activist and community leader running for San Jose City Council in 2022. “Representation inspired a huge wave of Black and young voters and inspired other Black people to run for office and be supported. It sets a precedent for the turning of the social and political tide.”

    Fernandez said Black people serving in positions of political power is critical for removing “the harmful parts of the system that repress people.”

    “We can’t have that conversation or take a sustainable action without having those voices represented at the table,” she said. “Black people have been the most traditionally oppressed and marginalized group of people in this country. We can’t even think about reimagining a system where we have equity and power for everyone if we’re not at that table.”

    Jahmal Williams, co-chair of Black Kitchen Cabinet Silicon Valley, said Black leaders are needed in the education and justice system to represent the community and speak to these issues.  

    “We’ve seen a white majority be in control of politics for a long time,” he said. “My hope is that’s starting to shift with Kamala Harris, Shirley Weber and the most diverse cabinet we’ve ever seen nationally. We need to see that shift in this county as well. If more Black, brown, indigenous and Asian populations were in charge of legislation, we wouldn’t see such disparity.”

    Rev. Steve Pinkston of Maranatha Christian Center said the ceiling for having a Black woman president remains to be broken, but Black girls today are seeing they can rise to that level.

    “This gives hope and a vision for people of all races and cultures that they too can achieve and make a difference once they get into positions of significance,” Pinkston said.

    One challenge still plaguing communities of color is access to voting. 

    “In some states, we saw long lines as if we were in another country… people waiting three to five hours to vote,” said Milan Balinton, executive director of African American Community Services Agency. “And people in power who can change legislation weren’t enraged about it. There’s still work to be done.”

    Pinkston agrees. People had to travel hundreds of miles to get to a voting spot in places like Georgia and Texas, he added. 

     “In 1865, the 15th Amendment was passed and 100 years later, in 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed, and here we are… still struggling for the guaranteed right of the constitution and 15th Amendment for access to vote. It’s horrendous,” he said. “Shame on those who would limit access to voting in this nation. My prayer is with Biden and Harris coming into the White House, that they can correct some of the challenges put before people of color.”

    In 1965, at the height of the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act was passed, prohibiting racial discrimination in voting. However, a 2013 Supreme Court ruling allowed nine states to change election laws without federal approval. 

    The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore the power of the 1965 Voting Right Act. President-elect Joe Biden pledged one of the first things he’d do as president is pass it.

    “We can’t let the fundamental right to vote be denied,” Biden said.

    Despite a tumultuous 2020, Balinton said it’s surreal Harris is poised to become vice president — especially with the county’s history of white men in power.

    “Regardless of the challenges of the day, it’s a celebration,” Balinton said. “Here we are breaking through and finally able to see this.”

    Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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