A 1960s Civil Rights Activist Talks About Why It’s Difficult to Support Black Lives Matter

Associated Press Files Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (third from right) leads a five-day, 50-mile march to the state capitol at Montgomery, Ala., in March 1965. Some activists from that era are skeptical of the tactics of Black Lives Matter.
Associated Press Files Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (third from right) leads a five-day, 50-mile march to the state capitol at Montgomery, Ala., in March 1965. Some activists from that era are skeptical of the tactics of Black Lives Matter.

As the rapper Tef Poe sharply pointed out at a St. Louis rally in October protesting the death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri: “This ain’t your grandparents’ civil rights movement.” 

He’s right. It looks, sounds and feels different. Black Lives Matter is a motley-looking group to this septuagenarian grandmother, an activist in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Many in my crowd admire the cause and courage of these young activists, but fundamentally disagree with their approach. Trained in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we were nonviolent activists who won hearts by conveying respectability and changed laws by delivering a message of love and unity. BLM seems intent on rejecting our proven methods. This movement is ignoring what our history has taught.

The baby boomers who drove the success of the civil rights movement want to get behind Black Lives Matter, but the group’s confrontational and divisive tactics make it difficult. In the 1960s, activists confronted white mobs and police with dignity and decorum, sometimes dressing in church clothes and kneeling in prayer during protests to make a clear distinction between who was evil and who was good.

But at protests today, it is difficult to distinguish legitimate activists from the mob actors who burn and loot. The demonstrations are peppered with hate speech, profanity and guys with sagging pants. Even if the BLM activists aren’t the ones participating in the boorish language and dress, neither are they condemning it.

The 1960s movement also had an innate respectability because our leaders often were heads of the black church as well. Unfortunately, church and spirituality are not high priorities for Black Lives Matter, and the ethics of love, forgiveness and reconciliation that empowered black leaders such as King and Nelson Mandela in their successful quests to win over their oppressors are missing from this movement. The power of the spiritual approach was evident in the way relatives of the nine victims in the Charleston church shooting responded at the bond hearing for Dylann Roof, the young white man who reportedly confessed to killing the church members “to start a race war.” One by one, the relatives stood in the courtroom, forgave the accused racist killer and prayed for mercy on his soul. As a result, in the wake of that horrific tragedy, not a single building was burned. There was no riot or looting. There was only global admiration.

The loving, nonviolent approach is what wins allies and mollifies enemies. But what we have seen come out of Black Lives Matter is rage and anger — justifiable emotions, but questionable strategy. For months, it seemed BLM hadn’t thought beyond that raw emotion, hadn’t questioned where it would all lead. I and other elders openly worried that, without a clear strategy and well-defined goals, BLM could soon crash and burn out. Oprah Winfrey voiced that concern earlier this year, saying, “What I’m looking for is some kind of leadership to come out of this to say, ‘This is what we want. This is what has to change, and these are the steps that we need to take to make these changes, and this is what we’re willing to do to get it.'”

For her wise counsel, she was denounced by young activists as elitist and “out of touch.” Last month, BLM finally came around, releasing a list of policy demands. If this young movement had embraced the well-meaning advice of its elders earlier, instead of responding with disdain, it could have spent recent months making headway with political leaders, instead of battling the disheartening images of violence and destruction that have followed its protests against police brutality in black neighborhoods.

Seizing the wisdom of veteran civil rights activists will only help BLM achieve its goals. Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton would be the most obvious assets, as civil rights leaders who have run for president and led political campaigns — but BLM has welcomed neither.

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Source: The Commercial Appeal | Barbara Reynolds

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