Tensions Between Old, New Civil Rights Leaders Grow as Ferguson Protests Continue

Protestors chant during a demonstration outside the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., against a grand jury's decision not to indict the police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner. (Photo: John Minchillo, AP)
Protestors chant during a demonstration outside the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., against a grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner. (Photo: John Minchillo, AP)

Protests against police treatment of black people have laid bare growing tensions between long-standing civil rights groups that have battled discrimination for decades and new groups of leaders who want an edgier approach.

Activists who spurred demonstrations across the country after a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man in Ferguson, Mo., now demand a prominent voice in a national conversation about race, challenging the primacy of established civil rights organizations such as Al Sharpton’s National Action Network and the NAACP. While the newer activists may share goals with more experienced groups, they have clashed with them in attempts at joint efforts.

That divide went on public display earlier this month at a march organized by Sharpton in Washington, D.C. when activist Johnetta Elzie, 25, and other protesters pushed to the front of the stage and demanded a share of the spotlight.

“This movement was started by the young people,” Elzie, of St. Louis, said at the Dec. 13 march. “We started this. There should be young people all over this stage. This should be young people all up here.”

It was the second time in the last five months that Ferguson protesters had chastised the old guard. In October, during an interfaith service in St. Louis, young activists interrupted the program by heckling speakers and shouting for a place on stage. Eventually, several clergy members ceded their spots to protesters, who told the crowd that NAACP President Cornell William Brooks was out of touch.

“This ain’t your grandparents’ civil rights movement,” rapper and activist Tef Poe said while on stage. “A lot of us are not scholars. We’re not trained organizers. We are not professional activists. We are just real people who identified a problem and decided to do something about it.”

The tactics employed by Ferguson protesters demonstrate a shift toward more daring actions for civil rights, said William Chafe, a history professor at Duke University who wrote a book on North Carolina’s sit-in movement. Similarly, he said, in the early 20th century, activists moved from polite letter-writing campaigns pleading for an end to segregation to boycott and civil disobedience.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., is 74 now, but in 1963 he was 23, and the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr., gave his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. Lewis’s moment at the podium was also borne out of conflict with tactics favored by the civil rights establishment.

Young people who longed for bolder action and quicker government response formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which received some support and mentorship from older activists in the 1960s, Lewis said. Still, Thurgood Marshall, then the head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, criticized the group for staging sit-ins at segregated lunch counters that led to arrests and beatings by whites angered at their presence, Lewis recalled. Marshall instead favored litigating for civil rights before in the courts.

Lewis, who served as the national chairman of SNCC, told Marshall that the movement needed more than a few lawyers arguing before the Supreme Court to change the status of black people in the U.S.

“We need a mass movement,” Lewis said he told Marshall at the time. “And that’s why we continued to go on the freedom rides, that’s why we continued to sit-in, that’s why we continued to march. And I think that’s what is needed today.”

Lewis said he sees his younger self in the radical protesters who seek to bring attention to the cause with demonstrations that inconvenience people and disrupt everyday life.

“If you see something that’s not right, that is not fair, that is not just, you have an obligation to speak up, act up and make some noise, and young people must be free to do that,” Lewis said. “When I see these young men and young women marching and speaking, I say that’s me when I had all my hair and (I was a) few pounds lighter.”

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Yamiche Alcindor

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