When Jussie Smollett learned about the March2Justice, part of him may have wished, for just a second, mind you, that he wasn't a star of the breakout hit series Empire. Because he had to be on a tour for the show, he was unable to join the activists who on April 13, began a 250-mile journey by foot from New York to Washington, D.C.
"This is work I've been doing since I was a child. My mother is an activist [who has] marched with Angela Davis, Huey Newton and for civil rights my entire life," said Smollett, who participated in his first march in 1989 at age six to protest the shooting death of Yusef Hawkins. "But this is a different movement and this is a different moment because I am very much an adult."
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Given the year the 31-year-old has had, it's really saying something when he describes the two days he spent with the March2Justice group as two of the "greatest" and "most emotional" of his life. They are, he told BET.com, also two days that he will never forget.
He is particularly in awe of the three women who organized the nine-day pilgrimage: Linda Sarsour, who is Arab-American and a Muslim; Tamika Mallory, an African-American woman, and Latina Carmen Perez.
Their diversity "is what America is about. This is what the nation is about. And when you look at the fact that all of this was done by three women says so much," Smollett said.
After organizing a hugely successful march in New York on Martin Luther King Day called Dream for Justice, the three women started brainstorming about what to do next. It was Mallory's idea, Sarsour told BET.com, to "do something dramatic to show people that we're serious and willing to do whatever it takes," like organizing a march from Staten Island, where Eric Garner lost his life to abusive police tactics, to Washington, D.C., where they rallied in support of the End Racial Profiling Act and other civil rights legislation.
"We all thought it was crazy, but we believe in each other and we believe that we can do anything and we did it," Sarsour said.
On April 21, the final day of the march, the group trekked from Howard University to the U.S. Capitol's West Lawn, where they held a rally. They were joined by people as old as 73 and as young as nine, Smollett said.
One of the most memorable moments for the actor and singer was a die-in the group did in front of the steps of the United States Supreme Court. As they circled the corner on their way to the West Lawn, they were met by a barricade of officers, "and we were just singing [the Peace Poets'] lyrics, 'I can hear my brother crying,'' Smollett crooned.
"It was a very special moment and very, very emotional," he added.
But there were also moments of sadness and anger, such as when 11-year-old Heaven Gross got up on stage at the rally to speak about her father's death in March at the hands of Metro Transit Police in Washington, D.C., and when the brother of Rekia Boyd, who was killed by a Chicago police officer, tearfully recalled the callous way his family was treated in court on the day the officer responsible for his sister's death was acquitted by a Cook County judge on a legal fine point.
"As I heard some of the families speak, it made me angry. It really pissed me off," Smollett said, "But we have to channel that anger and negativity into a positive action because it's the only way we're going to get something done."
The following day, the March2Justice organizers, marchers and other activists spent the morning on Capitol Hill talking to lawmakers about legislation. Smollett says he hopes that the support he's seen turns into action and that people around the country who care about justice will educate themselves about the bills and help fight for their passage.
While he acknowledges that he now has "a bit of a platform" thanks to his new fame, it is not necessary, Smollett believes, for anybody who truly is determined to make a difference.
"I've always been speaking; maybe more people are listening now," he modestly says. "But for me it didn't matter whether two people were listening or two million people were listening. The work is still the same, the problems are still the same, and we're in need of justice."
Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick.
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(Photo: Jussie Smollett via Instagram)
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