Honoring Dr. King’s Legacy through Sustained Service in Compton

Jan 22, 2021

As a Black woman and US military veteran, Nana Adae (board chair of The Mission Continues) knew very well that “African-Americans have served honorably from the beginning,” she said. But when she stepped into the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post in Compton, California with the Los Angeles Service Platoon to distribute goods to food-insecure families, she saw something she didn’t expect. 

“It really blew me away,” Nana reported. Photographs of the Post’s leadership through the years lined the walls, and “it was truly striking to see the Post’s leadership over time. And the women who also played roles in leadership had their pictures up there as well.” 

Most American stories of older veterans are about a veteran who, Nana explained, “is generally an older white gentleman with a little bit of a potbelly and a service insignia proudly displayed on his garrison cap. And that’s wonderful—but nine out of ten people wouldn’t describe anyone but that one person.” The Compton VFW’s open display of a legacy of Black leadership stood in stark contrast to this narrow conception of what and who veterans are. For Nana, “I knew it existed here and across the country, but it was really breathtaking to be able to see it up close. And I think oftentimes it is the experience that changes our perception rather than just being told something. Experiencing a thing is what ends up staying.”

This particular VFW, Post 5394, opened during the height of the Vietnam War by a network of predominantly Black veterans at a time when most Posts were not diverse. It quickly built a reputation as a unifying hub for the growing Black community in Compton. Thursday nights were (and traditionally still are) open to the community for entertainment, dining, and socializing. It even sailed above the spate of gang violence and conflicts with police that overwhelmed the mid-80s in this part of Los Angeles. This was neutral territory. Because of this, the VFW’s Thursday night gatherings became an anchor for Compton’s Black social life, providing a respite from the violence and divisions that waited outside its walls.

Today, the Compton VFW is still largely run by Black Vietnam-era veterans. As a young and diverse generation of 9/11-era veterans volunteer with The Mission Continues to serve under-resourced neighborhoods, the two organizations have formed a cross-generational partnership in Compton, bringing these two cohorts closer with each other and with the community’s rising youth.

Together, The Mission Continues, Compton veterans, and the Compton VFW are continuing to serve veterans and the broader Compton community by updating the Post to meet modern community needs, like beautifying it to reflect the gem that it is, collecting and distributing food during the COVID-19 pandemic, and creating a computer lab with free internet access and computer classes for seniors, veterans, and youth.

The Mission Continues connects veterans with under-resourced communities year-round, deploying volunteers to work alongside nonprofit partners and community leaders to improve educational resources, tackle food insecurity, foster neighborhood identity, and more. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Mission Continues has pivoted all of its volunteer efforts to focus on addressing the surge in hunger and food insecurity that has ravaged communities across the country, an initiative dubbed Operation Nourish.

As part of Operation Nourish, Compton veterans with The Mission Continues are giving a helping hand to a food bank every week by utilizing this VFW’s space as a central place for food collection and pickup, in addition to infusing more resources into the process. Nana was there the day after Veteran’s Day for a project to help collect, sort, and distribute food to community members. With Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service being top of mind, Nana saw the VFW’s example of historically Black leadership as a complementary inspiration to what she set out to do that day. Volunteering in the light of Black honor, community, and history, she said, “it just gave me a warm feeling to think about that.”

During The Mission Continues’ Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service campaign, volunteers returned to this VFW Post to distribute food to more than 250 families, construct a memorial garden, and begin putting together the computer lab—enhancing and amplifying its ability to serve its most vulnerable. They were surprised and grateful to enjoy a lunch generously donated by The Duke and Duchess of Sussex who wanted to express their gratitude for those choosing to serve others on this day. Mary Beth Bruggeman, US Marine Corps veteran and president of The Mission Continues stated, “Veterans are stepping up to help during a crisis in their community. Coming together to serve in new ways honors everything Dr. King stood for, including his values of leadership, selflessness, and equality—values that guide our work today in Compton, and every day in every community we work alongside.”

Nana also posited that The Mission Continues’ efforts to fight food insecurity is a natural expression of Martin Luther King Jr. ‘s “ideals of equality, and caring for your neighbor, and standing up for what’s right, and not overlooking problems. Basically, to get in there and do the good work. That’s exactly what The Mission Continues wants to do; we want to be where our communities need us most.”

There is still much work ahead. Operation Nourish continues in Compton and in local communities across the country. These efforts ensure that the legacies of those who dedicated or sacrificed their lives to their country and countrymen, from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, to the veterans whose portraits grace Post 5394’s walls, persist today in spirit and in impact.

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