Ainka M. Sanders Jackson is the founding Executive Director of the Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth and Reconciliation, which is committed to bridging divides and building the Beloved Community. She currently serves as Special Counsel for the Section's Civil Rights Division.
Where are you from? How have your experiences here, or throughout your upbringing, influenced your passions and aspirations today?
Born in Montgomery, AL and raised in Selma, AL, I appreciate that every successful legal and legislative movement also required a people movement. Therefore, I help to organize the community to address racial and economic inequities. I grew up around foot soldiers and living legends. It wasn’t until I left home that I begin to realize that these weren’t just play aunts and uncles but people who had changed the world inspiring me to do the same.
What drives you?
Like my foremothers and forefathers, my faith drives me. Isaiah 58:6 and Jesus in Luke 4, charges us “to loose the chains of injustice and...to set the oppressed free.” A common denominator in the three movements in Alabama that changed the world was people’s faith. A faith that reminded them that they were made in God’s image and that God is a God of justice. This legacy of faith is indeed a legacy of resistance and the building of the Beloved Community, a reconciled world where relationships have reached a height where justice prevails, and people are equipped to fulfill their full human potential. I try to ensure that my faith doesn’t manifest in a way that dehumanizes others but drives me to bridge divides and build the Beloved Community.
What is one thing most people do not know about you that you feel they should?
I think in music so if you say a line of a song in random conversation, I may burst out in a song like in the episodes of the show, Miranda. Now why do I think you should know this about me (that I love to sing but don’t sound good)? Because this work is too heavy, too hard to not have joy. Joy that causes you sometimes to randomly burst out in song. We must find time to take deep breaths, laugh and enjoy life daily as we seek to transform it.
When you look back, what is it that you want your advocacy and professional career to stand for?
Love. I know that sounds funny especially for a lawyer but I’m also a lawyer who hates conflict. That caused me to run from it for many years but now I try to hang tight to Dr. King’s quote, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” Dr. Cornel West says, “justice is what love looks like in public.” So that means I must lean into conflict sometimes because I love all of us and want us all to be free. Nelson Mandela said, “I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity. When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both.”
Finally, in my comrade in the nonviolence struggle, Kazu Haga’s book, “Healing Resistance: A Radically Different Response to Harm,” it says, “’conflict is the spirit of the relationship asking itself to deepen.’ It is through conflict that relationships are strengthened, and we begin to see each other in our authenticity. When handled right, conflict is a sacred gift.” It’s my hope that I would have helped America lean into one another, instead of running from one another so that we can truly heal. So that “life, liberty and the pursuit of justice” can be lived out, be loved out by all of us. That’s what love looks to me. That’s what I want my legacy to be—co-creator of the BeLOVEd Community.
What is one issue which you care about or work most on and why?
I led my first march in the sixth grade. (I’ve been at this for a while.) We met the high schoolers, and we took over the high school for five days and four nights to demand the end of racial tracking, which was called ability grouping. Our parents had negotiated for many years to end this practice that put me in a low reading level until my mother realized it and asked why. She was told that I was immature. I was in the second grade so that was probably true but also true for all the white children and upper middle class Black children in the higher level. I was eventually tested and moved to gifted classes, but my mom asked what about all the other Black and poor children, and thus a movement was born. That tracking movement and the misunderstandings and lies told about it, caused a great white flight in our schools and in Selma. Much of my work now is to help heal the relationships and the negative effects on the economy and community from that and other racial injustices.
What do you feel is the greatest challenge facing this issue today?
Our society treats each other as disposable. When we don’t agree with you, we cut you off. When you no longer serve our interest, we throw you away like we throw away paper plates. Both progressives and conservatives do this. We are all guilty of othering each other. We become so self-righteous until we don’t see the harm we are doing. The biggest challenge to building the Beloved Community is that you have to actually be the Beloved Community. That can be really hard in the face of such great injustice and pain but as Dr. King said, “darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” We must be the light.
In what corners do you find the greatest support in propelling these issues you work on? In other words, who are your most frequent allies?
In our the racial equity training, “Beyond Divide and Conquer: Unite and Build,” for the Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth and Reconciliation, we discuss how there is a cost of racism to all of us, including those that identify as white. When you realize there is a cost to you, then it’s not just an ally but we call it co-liberation because you know you have skin in the game, similar to Mandela’s theory. Tema Okun, who is a white woman who helped us create our racial equity training, talks about doing this work not just to help people of color but to help herself get free. I love her! I also find great support with those who practice nonviolence as we seek to use the Hegelian method that Dr. King used, which is a dialectical approach for finding the whole truth where you identify and analyze opposing sides and then synthesis them. (Check out Dr. King’s Pilgrimage to Nonviolence chapter in “A Stride Towards Freedom” or come to one of our trainings!) It recognizes there’s value in us all. It’s like Bryan Stevenson says, “we are more than the worst thing we’ve done.” Making people disposable is an enemy of justice so those that seek not to are who I feel supported by.
What CRSJ project(s) are you working on? Or, what have you undertaken in CRSJ that you found the most rewarding to have worked on? Are there any upcoming events or projects you want us all to know about?
I first learned of the great work of CRSJ when we partnered with the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty, which I was a member of. As the Special Counsel to the Civil Rights Division of the Section, I have tried to continue in that spirit of partnership. The issue of silos is not just a struggle that we have but is actually a consequence of the false narrative of white supremacy which I believe is more accurately called white idolatry (and we all have been taught to do it). White idolatry promotes separateness and individualism. I have tried to combat that by keeping the different committees connected and looking for ways to partner. Previously, the Selma Center also did a part of our racial equity training for CRSJ leadership. I would love to share more of that! I look forward to how we can continue to learn, lean in to tough conversations so we can heal, break out of silos, partner more in and outside of the ABA, and continue to serve as we become and build the Beloved Community.