At the time of the Yes!/Colorlines Black Lives Matter publication, there have been close to 70 days of ongoing national and global protests against police killings and anti-Black racism since the police killing of George Floyd on May 25.
Yet, even with protesters in the streets daily, police killings of unarmed Black people have continued.
Some folks have asked, “What does protest ever get us?” Many have said, “Rioting never solves anything.” And still, others have declared, “Marching and protesting are outdated and don’t work if they ever did.”
But they do.
Protest as an act of resistance to oppression is a staple of American culture, the very founding of the United States is connected to protest, which exists in myriad demonstrations.
Here are the receipts.
In 1767, the British government passed the Townshend Acts, which placed high tariffs on many British imported goods. Almost immediately, in the British North American colony of Massachusetts, there were violent protests against the acts. Numerous riots broke out.
From 1768-1770, there were constant protests and street battles between the American colonists and British soldiers culminating on March 5, 1770 when British soldiers fired on a crowd of 300, hitting 11 protesters, and killing five, including a Black man named Crispus Attucks. What came to be known as the Boston Massacre, and the later protest—the Boston Tea Party—are often cited as the beginnings of the movement for the American Revolution, which brought about the independence of the 13 colonies from Great Britain, and the establishment of the United States of America. But it did not lead to independence or freedom for Black people.
However, before Crispus Attucks joined the protest at the Custom House on King Street in 1770, Black people had been protesting and resisting oppression by British, French, Portuguese, Dutch, and Spanish citizens who were the perpetrators of the Transatlantic Slave Trade—the largest forced migration in history.
Beginning in the mid-1400s, the capturing, trading, warehousing, and enslaving of Africans by Europeans as well as the transporting, selling, and buying of these enslaved people was aggressively protested by African people. Many know of the Amistad mutiny and the Nat Turner rebellion against slavery, but the resistance to slavery did not begin on the plantations or the slave ships.
It began on the continent of Africa.
Much discussion has centered the role Africans, particularly African rulers, played in the slave trade, yet there has been less discussion about the fight West Africans waged against slavery. Villagers and townspeople built fortifications and set up warning systems to prevent slave raids by both Europeans and slave traders from enemy ethnic groups.
King Mvemba, also known as King Afonso I, of the Kingdom of Kongo, in the 1500s, began writing letters to the Portuguese condemning the slave trade in his kingdom. These anti-slavery writings of an African ruler are the prototype for the anti-slavery newspapers of the 1800s in the United States.
In the 1600s, after failed negotiations and treaties with the Portuguese, Queen Nzinga Mbande of the African kingdoms of Ndongo and Matamba (present-day Angola), went to war with Portugal, largely over slave trading in her kingdom.
She not only led her soldiers in battle, but also fought a guerrilla war using trenches and hidden caves, and accumulated supplies to prepare the people for a long war. She decreed her kingdom a safe haven for people escaping enslavement by the European colonists. Queen Nzinga is just one example of the fact that Black women have always been at the forefront of the struggle against oppression.
Even after being captured and forced onto slave ships for the Middle Passage, enslaved Africans resisted by organizing hunger strikes and rebellions. Many committed suicide by jumping overboard. About one-tenth of all slave ship voyages had major slave revolts. Many more experienced other forms of resistance.
Slave ship rebellions were so costly for European slave traders that many began to avoid certain regions known for revolts, such as Upper Guinea. Subsequently, there would be fewer enslaved Africans from this region.
When Africans were brought into the “New World”—the Caribbean, Brazil, Central America, and what would become the United States and Canada, they resisted on every level. They broke the tools, burned the crops, refused to work, worked slowly on purpose, made fun of the slaveowners, poisoned the food, and organized slave rebellions.
In the 1700s, New York had a large population of enslaved Africans. In 1712, there was a slave revolt, and in 1741 there was a plan for an even larger uprising. In the 1730s and 1740s, Manhattan had the largest population of enslaved Africans in Britain’s 13 colonies, except for one other city—Charleston, South Carolina.
In 1739, the Stono rebellion, the largest revolt against enslavement in the 13 colonies, took place in South Carolina. Forty Africans and 20 White colonists were killed in the uprising.
There were hundreds of rebellions during the period of slavery—some small, some major.
Today’s protests are no different. They’re modern-day uprisings, or rebellions, and part of every era of U.S. history.
Cultural Resistance as Protest
“National liberation is necessarily an act of culture.” —Amilcar Cabral
In the recent Black Lives Matter protests, we see musicians, poets, singers, visual artists, dancers, and others using various arts and cultural presentations to support the movement. The reality is, these cultural presentations are themselves protests against anti-Black racism that draw upon a long history of cultural resistance that spans from the African continent to the slave plantations to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s to the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and ‘70s to the conscious hip hop movement of the 1980s and ‘90s to the present-day movement for Black lives.
And even those movements drew from the practice of Africans speaking in their native languages in order to resist the forced imposition of the slaveowners’ language. They used their African names among each other, rather than the names given to them by enslavers. Many held on to their traditional African religions or Islam rather than convert to Christianity—the slaveowners’ religion. When Africans did practice Christianity, they largely interpreted it through their own cultural lens and saw God as a liberator on the side of the enslaved. They performed rituals, art, and drum and dance to hold on to their African traditions. These forms of cultural resistance helped to retain African culture, which became the foundation for African American culture. These African cultural retentions are easily seen in the variety of Black music, dance, language, clothing styles, worship styles, and family organization.
If slaveowners had been successful in totally removing all vestiges of African culture from enslaved Africans, there would be no African cultural retentions such as call-and-response at Black churches, parties, and concerts, no pouring of libations for honored ancestors, and no Ebonics or African American Vernacular English, no Jamaican Patois, and no Haitian Kreyol. There would be no African spiritual systems like Haitian Vodou, Louisiana Voodoo, Cuban Santeria, Brazilian Candomblé, and no distinct Black Church in America.
Legal Resistance as Protest
From the writing and adoption of the Constitution to the 13th Amendment, the enslavement of African people was still legal in the United States. However, another area of resistance to slavery would strike directly at the underpinning of the peculiar institution—the law.
We all know, or should know, the Dred Scott case. Dred Scott v. Sandford was a U.S. Supreme Court case in which Dred Scott, an enslaved Black man, sued for his freedom, as well as the freedom of his wife and children, based on the fact that they had lived with their slave-owner in Illinois and Wisconsin, a state and territory, respectively, where slavery was prohibited.
The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 against Dred Scott, in a decision that proclaimed that Black people were not citizens and had “no rights which the White man was bound to respect.”
However, before the Dred Scott case, which gave momentum to the abolitionist movement, and was a catalyst for the Civil War, there were hundreds of lawsuits for freedom. In 1781, the case Brom and Bett v. Ashley made it to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which ruled in favor of Elizabeth Freeman, known as Mum Bett, and granted her freedom. This case provided the legal foundation for ending slavery in Massachusetts.
When we think of legal challenges to racial discrimination, we most often reflect on the NAACP’s courtroom battles to end segregation, most famously in schools, culminating in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the 1954 case in which the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that segregated schools are unconstitutional.
Legal challenges have been consistently used in concert with other forms of protest, such as freedom rides, sit-ins, marches, and boycotts.
Boycotts, like so much of Black protest traditions, trace back to the abolitionist movement.
The African Methodist Episcopal (AME) and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) churches organized a major boycott of goods produced by those enslaved in 1830. The churches played a major role in organizing both the “Colored Free Produce Society of Pennsylvania,” an all-Black male organization, and the Colored Female Free Produce Society of Pennsylvania, created and led by Black women.
The boycott targeted sugar and cotton produced on Southern and Caribbean plantations. They not only boycotted goods produced by the enslaved, but they presented alternatives for sugar and cotton produced by free men and women, as well as their own distribution networks and retail stores.
The AME church continued its activism beyond the fight against slavery. In 1930, the Detroit Housewives League was formed by members of Bethel AME Church in Detroit. They organized boycotts of businesses that refused to hire Black people or treated Black customers disrespectfully. They were successful in getting African Americans employed at White-owned businesses that previously refused to hire Black workers, while at the same time offering Black-owned alternatives to these discriminatory establishments, and promoting Black entrepreneurship as a response to racism in White stores. In 1933, the women instituted a national organization known as the National Housewives League of America.
One of the most famous, largest, and longest boycotts in U.S. history is the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. The extent of what most know about the boycott is that it began when Rosa Parks didn’t give up her seat to a White man. What is not well known is that before the boycott Jo Ann Robinson, the leader of the Women’s Political Council, sent a letter to Mayor William A. Gayle, threatening a Black women-led boycott of the Montgomery buses if some serious changes were not made. Before and after Robinson’s threat, there were repeated instances of Black women being harassed, mistreated, and arrested on the bus for violating the segregation ordinances.
Following the strategic Parks demonstration, the boycott was organized by the Montgomery Improvement Association, and worked alongside a civil rights lawsuit, Browder v. Gayle, in which four Black women—Aurelia Browder, Claudette Colvin, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith—sued the mayor of Montgomery, the chief of police, and various other local and state representatives on the grounds that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional.
The boycott lasted 13 months, and ended in 1956 after the Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling in favor of Browder.
One of the most notable protest marches is the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. To commemorate this historical moment, and in protest against police killings and anti-Black racism, organizers are currently planning a march in the nation’s capital on August 28, 2020. It was at the 1963 March on Washington that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech, and where he addressed the racial injustices in America that are being protested all over the nation this very minute.
Since the March on Washington, there have been many more Black-led marches in Washington, D.C., including the Million Man March in 1995, led by Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, and featuring many speakers from the Black political, religious, and civil rights communities, including Betty Shabazz, widow of Malcolm X, and civil rights legend Rosa Parks.
As we know, marching is not new.
On July 28, 1917, 15,000 Black men, women, and children silently marched, in record heat, down Fifth Avenue in New York City to protest the murders of more than 40 Black people in the 1917 race riot in East St. Louis, and the long history of lynchings, specifically the then-recent lynchings of Black men in Memphis, Tennessee and Waco, Texas. They carried signs with anti-lynching messages, as well as messages proclaiming Black humanity and dignity.
The march was organized by the NAACP, then led by James Weldon Johnson, as well as two prominent Black Harlem churches—St. Philip’s Episcopal Church and the Fourth Moravian Church.
Five years later, on June 14, 1922, there was a similar march of 5,000 Black people on Washington D.C. This was the first civil rights march on Washington, D.C ., in the 20th century. The march was meant to push federal legislation against lynching. However, the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill was filibustered by Southern segregationist congressmen and died on the House floor in December of the same year.
In 1940, on the eve of the United States’ entry into World War II, the Armed Forces were still segregated. African Americans who served in the military were treated as second-class soldiers, and when they returned, they were treated as second-class citizens. A. Philip Randolph, leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Walter White, leader of the NAACP, and Thomas Arnold Hill of the National Urban League met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and demanded an immediate end to segregation in all of the armed forces.
When the White House rebuffed the Black leaders’ demands, Randolph planned a March on Washington as a mass protest against the President and segregation in the armed forces. The March was scheduled for July of 1941.
The march, to be funded entirely by Black people, was expected to draw 100,000 Black people. Black newspapers, especially the Chicago Defender and the New York Amsterdam News were instrumental in getting the word out about the protest.
Roosevelt was unsuccessful in getting Randolph to call off the march and later compromised. A week before the march was to take place, Roosevelt announced the creation of the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC), which would prohibit discrimination in federal training programs. But that wasn’t enough, nor was it what the Black leaders demanded, and four days before the march, although he still didn’t end segregation in the armed forces, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which officially established the FEPC, and prohibited discrimination in the defense industry and in companies with defense contracts.
Randolph then canceled the march, but for the next six years, he continued to use a potential march as a pressure tool to get the federal government to move forward against anti-Black discrimination. In 1948, President Harry Truman outlawed segregation in the armed forces.
Self-Determination as Protest
Another aspect of resistance to racism has been the tradition of African Americans building their own institutions. Discriminated against in White churches, they founded their own churches and denominations—and did the same for schools, banks, etc.
When two free Black men—Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, both Methodist ministers, protested discrimination at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, their demands for change were denied. In 1787, Allen and Jones left and founded the Free African Society, a Black institution devoted to providing assistance to those escaping from slavery as well as other Black people who needed assistance in Philadelphia. Out of that institution, two others would be formed—the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, the oldest Black Episcopal congregation in the United States, and the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, the oldest independent Protestant denomination founded by Black people.
The land and building of the Free African Society became the site for Mother Bethel AME Church and is the oldest piece of land continuously owned by Black people in the United States.
This process happened over and over.
In Detroit, First Baptist Church, a White-led church with a significant number of Black members, not only segregated the seating in the church but had other rules for its Black members.
Black members could not become ushers, deacons, or ministers.
Black members had to pay their tithes on time, or be kicked out of the church.
Black members had to be to church on time and could not be absent, or they would be kicked out of the church.
The Black members left First Baptist and founded Second Baptist Church in Detroit. Second Baptist, the oldest Black congregation in Michigan, became the center of the abolitionist movement and served as a major station on the Underground Railroad, as well as the first school for Black people in Detroit.
There were numerous business districts developed by African Americans throughout the United States. In Detroit, this business district was known as Paradise Valley and included 350 Black-owned businesses, including clubs, restaurants, hotels, bars, shops, law offices, mortuary services, real estate developers, and so much more.
The most famous of these Black business districts was the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, which became known as Black Wall Street. Whereas Paradise Valley in Detroit was destroyed when the land was seized by eminent domain in the 1950s in order to build a freeway, Black Wall Street was destroyed in a bitter race riot in 1921 when White violence—backed by the city—resulted in the deaths of up to 300 people and destruction of millions of dollars worth of property.
Abolitionist Movement Paves the Way for Other Movements
When it comes to protesting against racism, and using the tactics of rebellion, cultural resistance, legal challenges, boycotts, marches, and building Black-led institutions, the model comes not from the modern Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, but the abolitionist movement.
Although many of us have been taught that the abolitionist movement was an anti-slavery movement composed mostly of Quaker Whites, we need to remove the idea of a “White Savior” movement and adjust our lenses if we want to clearly see what the abolitionist movement really was—a movement largely organized and led by free Black men and women with important White allies who worked with and sometimes under the leadership of these Black men and women.
Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth are not exceptions—that’s the way the abolitionist movement, including the Underground Railroad, actually worked.
Abolitionists published anti-slavery newspapers, lobbied local and state governments to end slavery in the states where it existed, and prevented slave catchers from capturing freedom seekers to return them to slavery. They wrote and published thousands of slave narratives—the most famous being those of Frederick Douglass (who wrote three: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave; My Bondage and My Freedom; and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass), Harriet Jacobs (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl), and Olaudah Equiano (The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano).
Black abolitionists were orators who gave public speeches to both educate the mostly Northern White public and motivate them to support the abolitionist cause. The most well known of these speakers was, of course, Frederick Douglass, but Sojourner Truth, Charles Lenox Remond, and his sister, Sarah Parker Remond, were also very well known as powerful speakers against slavery. Charles and Sarah Remond are among the first Black abolitionist public orators and were highly influential in their anti-slavery speeches. Frederick Douglass named one of his sons, Charles Remond Douglass, after Charles Lenox Remond.
The Underground Railroad, which could only exist with the diligence of free Black men and women, was, besides slave rebellions, the most radical component of the abolitionist movement. Neither “underground” nor a “railroad,” the Underground Railroad used railroad terminology to refer to the people, places, and routes that helped enslaved Black people—known as “cargo” or “passengers”—escape from slavery. The safe houses, which included homes, attics, closets, basements, hidden wall areas, barns, churches, and other areas, were known as “stations” or “depots.” The property owner or manager of the safe house was known as a “stationmaster.” Abolitionists that told enslaved Black people about the railroad were known as “agents” or “shepherds.” Those who raised and provided funds and other resources to the Underground Railroad were known as “stockholders.”
Anyone who helped guide or transport freedom seekers from one site to another was known as a “conductor.” Harriet Tubman is the most famous Underground Railroad conductor.
The abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad also had vigilance committees that helped to organize the Underground Railroad as well as respond to slave catchers who were attempting to capture freedom seekers and return them to slavery. The most well known was the Vigilant Committee (also Association) of Philadelphia. In Detroit, there existed two interconnected vigilance committees—the Colored Vigilant Committee of Detroit and the more secret group, the African-American Mysteries known as The Order of the Men of Oppression founded by prominent Black Detroit businessmen George DeBaptiste and William Lambert.
With its strategies of cultural resistance, sabotage, work stoppage, escape, emigration, armed rebellion, speech-making, moral persuasion, and legal challenges, the abolitionist movement provided the bulk of the activist tools for subsequent movements, like the Civil Rights Movement and the women’s suffrage movement.
The women’s suffrage movement is a direct descendant of the abolitionist movement. Most of the leading suffragists were former abolitionists—Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and others. And we cannot forget that Black women were also pioneering women suffragists—Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells-Barnett being two of the most well known.
Even before slavery ended, Black leaders and activists had been organizing for both Black voting rights and women’s suffrage. The right to vote, which had been a goal of Black activists since slavery, became a staple of the Civil Rights Movement.
By the time we get to the sit-ins of 1960, the Freedom Rides of 1961, the Birmingham Campaign and the March on Washington of 1963, the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, the Selma Voting Rights Campaign of 1965, the Chicago Movement of 1966, the Detroit 1967 Rebellion, and the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, we should all know the names of these organizations and their functions in the Civil Rights Movement:
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1909, uses lobbying and litigation as its main strategies.
National Urban League (NUL), founded in 1910, focuses on social work, job training, housing, and education for African Americans. Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), founded in 1942, used nonviolent direct action, mainly freedom rides and voter registration as its main strategies. Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), founded in 1957, used nonviolent direct action, especially boycotts, marches, and speeches as its main strategies. Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), founded in 1960, used nonviolent direct action, especially sit-ins, voter registration, and grassroots organizing.
From these groups, in the 1950s and 1960s, we learn the names of leaders and activists like Roy Wilkins, Medgar Evers, Thurgood Marshall, Whitney Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, Wyatt Tee Walker, C.T. Vivian, Andrew Young, James Bevel, Diane Nash, John Lewis, Ruby Doris Smith-Robinson, James Farmer, James Forman, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and so many others.
Although each of these organizations originally adopted nonviolence as a form of protest, by 1965, both CORE and SNCC were no longer fully wedded to the idea of nonviolence. By 1966, both groups would support self-defense and proclaim themselves as seeking Black Power.
The Black Power Movement, with the creation of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense—which, by the way, instituted health care programs, community schools, and the first free breakfast program on which our modern-day school meal programs are based—became another facet of the Black liberation movement that combined the civil rights aspirations of the nonviolent organizations with the Malcolm X-inspired ideas of self-defense and various degrees of support for Black nationalism.
Just as the Black Power Movement came out of the Civil Rights Movement, so did the anti-Vietnam War Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement. In both cases, much of the leadership and many of the activists of the main anti-war and women’s liberation groups had earlier been involved in civil rights. There is no Students for a Democratic Society without SNCC.
When we look at all of the progressive ideas that are still being advocated for in the age of Black Lives Matter, we need to first look back at the abolitionist movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, and other eras and forms of Black protest to see the long continuum against many of the same issues:
Police violence. Mass incarceration. Voter disenfranchisement. Segregated schools. Redlining. Health disparities.
Fighting for Health Equity
“Of all the inequalities that exist, the injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhuman.”—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Chicago, Illinois, March 1966
Speaking of health disparities, single-payer universal health care was on Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 platforms long before Bernie Sanders’ 2016 or 2020 platforms.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began shutting down schools, businesses, and other institutions in March, there has been an acute recognition of health disparities between African Americans and White Americans. Although this has been known since before the Affordable Care Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010, many of today’s thinkers and activists have not looked at how Black leaders and activists addressed health care inequality in the past.
The push for national health care was initiated by Black doctors in the early 1900s.
Prohibited from joining the American Medical Association, which was founded in 1847, Black doctors—12 of them—formed the National Medical Association (NMA) in 1895. They, mostly, lobbied and spoke out in favor of health care as a right. Those doctors knew that the majority of African Americans were blocked from attaining wealth, and from high-paying jobs, and from careers that supplied health insurance—only those patients who had wealth, or high incomes, or good insurance could afford to get adequate medical care. Therefore, the only way to ensure equity in health care was to have national health care.
By fighting for this, Black doctors were also fighting for medical care for poor and low-income Whites. White doctors wanted to be able to continue to use their medical practice as a road to wealth. When President Harry Truman announced a national health care plan in 1945, the White-dominated AMA spent millions of dollars on newspaper ads and billboards against national health care and banded together with Southern segregationists. W. Montague Cobb, a leading Black physician who would become president of the NMA in 1963, was a vocal supporter of Truman’s plan and came out against the AMA.
The national health care plan, which Truman attempted to get passed a number of times between 1945 and 1950, was largely supported by the NMA, although some were against it.
The plan was ultimately blocked, but Truman’s successor Dwight D. Eisenhower passed a law that provided health care to families of soldiers. Nobody wanted to fight that in public. This was the first Medicare program.
In 1957, Dr. T.R.M. Howard, a Black medical doctor from Mississippi who was a tutor to Medgar Evers and Fannie Lou Hamer, as well as a civil rights activist who led a community investigation of the murder of Emmett Till, became the head of the NMA and founded the Imhotep National Conference on Hospital Integration.
The group fought to end the practice of blocking Black patients from being admitted to White hospitals, and they fought to end blocking Black doctors from having full medical privileges to practice at White hospitals.
In 1963, Dr. George Simkins sued the White hospital in Greensboro, N.C. on behalf of his patient who was refused admittance.
After Simkins won in the federal court of appeals, Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation in public places and institutions that received federal funding—including hospitals.
Johnson would then go on to expand Medicare to cover all Americans aged 65 and older. Also, LBJ would sign Medi-caid, which covered poor and low-income Americans, into law.
Because these two government insurance programs pushed millions of dollars into hospitals all over the country, those hospitals, their lobbies, their waiting rooms, and their exam rooms, became integrated immediately.
Black patients were being seen at most hospitals in the country, and Black doctors were able to practice at most hospitals in the country.
Disparities still exist, and still, Black doctors, activists, and allies continue to fight for universal health care. But there would be no Obamacare, otherwise known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, without the century-long battle for national health care that was championed early on by African American doctors of the National Medical Association.
Standing on the Shoulders of Those Who Came Before Us
Black protest has borrowed from the long activism of the abolitionist movement, the organizing of Black people during Reconstruction, the anti-lynching campaigns of the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Great Migration from the South to the North and West, the fight for integration in sports—most notably baseball—the fight for an integrated armed forces, and many other battles that we may take for granted today.
These campaigns, all of them, included not only pencil-pushing and sign-carrying by the protesters but bloodshed and death of protesters and non-protesters alike.
Police brutality and police killings of Black people have been the main spark for uprisings today, and for decades. The 1960s rebellions in Watts, Newark, and Detroit, as well as many others, were all sparked by police brutality and killings of Black people. During the Civil Rights Movement, especially the Birmingham Campaign of 1963 and the Selma Campaign of 1965, the White segregationist police brutality of Birmingham Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor and Sheriff Jim Clark, which was televised nationally, helped to publicize the civil rights protests and morally sway people to support the efforts of the movement.
One difference we see now, especially with the Black women-organized movements of Black Lives Matter and me too, is a strong realization that Black women have always been at the forefront of any movement for Black progress. Whether it’s the abolitionist movement, the suffragist movement, the civil rights movement, the Black Power Movement, the labor movement, the Black Arts Movement—or founding churches, starting businesses, building Black institutions, or reforming schools—wherever the battlefront is, Black women are and have been on the field. BLM co-founders Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi stand on the shoulders of those women who came before them, as does me too founder Tarana Burke.
As anti-racist allies, Whites will have to look at this history too. Otherwise, they will find themselves perpetuating the harms that existed between White allies and Black activists for centuries and may not be able to move beyond it.
They must understand that White supremacy exists within the Left too. When William Lloyd Garrison, a radical White abolitionist, wanted Frederick Douglass to continue giving lectures, Douglass decided to write not only his autobiographies but also started his own abolitionist newspaper, The North Star. Garrison and Douglass ended their partnership over this and other issues. But the idea that White progressives can tell Black activists what to do is still a problem in the protest movement.
White progressive activists, when it comes to protesting against racism, must accept and respect Black leadership. If Black Lives Matter, then Black leadership matters. And both African Americans and White activists must have a high respect for the movements of generations that came before them.
Most progressive policies—including guaranteed basic income, free college tuition, and universal health care—were initiatives fought for by Black people before White progressives supported them. Yesterday and today.
We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.
There is no separation between what our foremothers and forefathers did and what we’re doing today. Signs like, “I am not my ancestors, I’ll f—k you up!” are counterproductive, and those carrying them are either historically naïve at best, or intellectually dishonest about the long movement for Black liberation, at worst.
Protesters today ain’t doing nothing new: They are standing on the shoulders of those who came before them.
Check the receipts.