On Monday, during the federal holiday set aside to celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr., a new generation of Americans tired of persistent racial inequality, discrimination, and police violence directed at specific segments of society will participate in actions designed to reclaim the legacy of the famous civil rights leader.
In a day of action, designated on social media sites as #ReclaimMLK, groups from around the country plan to forge the more radical and confrontational side of King's social gospel and activism with the messaging and spirit of the 'black lives matters" movement that sprouted nationwide in the wake of several high-profile killings of unarmed black men by police in 2014.
Martin Luther King Jr’s life’s work was the elevation, honoring, and defense of Black Lives. His tools included non-violent civil disobedience and direct action. Dr. King was part of a larger movement of women, and men, queer, and straight, young and old. This movement was built on a bold vision that was radical, principled, and uncompromising. The freedom fighters who believed in this vision were called impractical, rash, irrational, and naive. Their tactics were controversial. Some elders distanced themselves from what was then a new movement for change. Some of the older generation joined in. Our movement draws a direct line from the legacy of Dr. King.
Though King is often celebrated for his calls for racial unity as exemplified in his "I Have a Dream" speech, a much more radical current in his thinking, especially later in his life, was focused on the issues of structural poverty, the regressive impacts of militarism, and the economic injustice faced by all oppressed people denied access to education, jobs, and the other basic rights.
As Gabrielle Canon and Bryan Schatz write for Mother Jones on Sunday:
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The Civil Rights Movement of the '50s and '60s marked an important turning point in American history. But members of Black Lives Matter, as the fledgling movement is often referred to, hope to highlight that there's still much to be done—that the battle for equality is just beginning.
Black Lives Matter, which took its name from the Twitter hashtag used to rally and connect protesters, began to take shape in August, after a grand jury declined to indict Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson for killing unarmed teenager Mike Brown, kicking off weeks of demonstrations. It may have been a local incident, but it represented a national problem: There were Mike Browns in every community and plenty of people were fed up.
Protests erupted around the country, mostly in towns where tensions had long been brewing. Anger turned to action as people took to the streets to remind America that racism wasn't merely something from the past. It lived in people's day-to-day experiences, in our growing economic inequality, and, most visibly, in the criminal justice system.
In a well-rounded piece exploring how the movement has evolved and where it might be heading, the New York Times' Tanzina Vega offered participants and organizers of recent protests an opportunity to articulate their motives while also exploring the concerns of those who share in the critique of racial injustice and police violence but remain skeptical of some of the tactics or lack of a clear organizing strategy among demonstrators.
From Vega's reporting:
“We’re in the business of disrupting white supremacy,” said Wazi Davis, 23, a student at San Francisco State University, who has helped organize protests in the Bay Area. “We look toward historical tactics. The Montgomery bus boycott, the sit-ins — those tactics were all about disruption.”
What is far less clear is whether today’s protesters have the ability, or even the intention, to build an organized movement capable of creating social change.
David J. Garrow, a historian and the author of “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,” said the impromptu protests that had erupted in recent months were not comparable to the strategies used by civil rights groups of the 1960s, which had clear goals such as winning the right to vote or the right to eat at a segregated lunch counter.
“You could call it rebellious, or you could call it irrational,” Mr. Garrow said of the new waves of protests. “There has not been a rational analysis in how does A and B advance your policy change X and Y?”
Mr. Garrow compared the protesters to those of Occupy Wall Street. “Occupy had a staying power of, what, six months?” Mr. Garrow said. “Three years later, is there any remaining footprint from Occupy? Not that I’m aware of.”
Acknowledging some of these tensions as well, Canon and Shatz spoke to several people about the possible ways forward for those who want to "reclaim MLK" while also forging their own brand of organizing and movement-building for the contemporary era.
Mother Jones spoke with Manuel Pastor, a professor of sociology and American studies at the University of Southern California, who studies how movements develop and impact society. He told Mother Jones that for these protests "to become a true movement," as opposed to "just a moment" certain strategies must be undertaken. "A movement needs to have a grassroots space," Pastor said. "It needs to have a broad vision of what might change, a pragmatic policy package announcing things that actually could make a difference, what could be done. It needs to have sort of a theory of what the government might do. It needs to be intersectional, connecting different strands of arguments and strands of movements so it can become a bit bigger than a single issue or a silo."
Like Garrow, Pastor also invoked the relatively short lifespan of the Occupy movement, and said, "You don't win without organization."
Mother Jones also spoke with DeRay McKesson, an activist and one of the creators of a new website designed to help organize the various on-line and off-line efforts of the 'black lives matter' movement. McKesson discussed the new site, WetheProtesters.org, and also acknowledged some of the growing pains being experienced by a national movement largely organized without heirarchies, firm structures, or a clear set of shared demands.
"I think that what's happening is a new form—a decentralized space with many people leading," he said. "We are all growing and learning. So how do we link everybody up in a way that is meaningful, and a way that is about the work? We are now figuring out how to do that."
What's most important, McKesson continued, is to recognize that the calls for racial justice and an end to police violence are necessary parts of a broader agenda that includes specific policies—like increased wages and housing and education reform—geared towards achieving both economic and social justice.
"Police brutality sits in concert with so many other issues," he explained. "It sits in concert with housing. Police target low-income communities that were intentionally made to be the way they are. I think we have an opportunity, in the long term, to talk about those things."
"I think that we can win," he told Mother Jones, resolutely. "But how we think about the win is really important. Being alive is a win, but it is not enough. Good schools are a win, but they are not enough. Housing is a win, but it is not enough. That matters. That way of imagining a better world as a series of wins that leads to the end of racism—that's what will be transformative."