Contributor: Brandi Miller

Civil rights movements are always about more than just an issue for a group of people; the work toward more equitable rights is inherently a people’s cry to be recognized and treated as fully human. Black Lives Matter is no different. The past three years, the leadership of brave women, in particular, has launched the United States into asking whether the humanity of Black people is valuable enough to defend in our society. Violence toward Black bodies takes many forms, but has been highlighted most egregiously in the loss of life at the hands of law enforcement, and this has become a central issue in answering the question of the value of Black life. The answer to this question seems to diverge almost exclusively along polarized racial lines. Black folks say “no, our lives are not valued here” while dominant society claims that we live in an equitable meritocracy.

Hindsight in our case is the enemy to progress. Our history books treat the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s with nostalgic national pride and claim Martin Luther King Jr. as a hero who was not only well loved and respected, but who was also docile and more resembled White Jesus cuddling a lamb than he did the strategic, persistent, and disruptive movement leader that he was.

How eager we are to alter history in order to put ourselves on the right side of it. Those who often claim pride at the so-called equitable landscape of the U.S. are among the same people who--let’s remember that this was less than 60 years ago--vehemently opposed integration, the right for Black people to vote, and have since been silent about or antagonistic toward the continued violence against Black people. We have not “arrived” and that is why Black Lives Matter exists.

A handful of Civil Rights victories over half a century ago does not mean that the United States has “arrived”; in fact, our incredible ability to rewrite history has made several myths dominant:

  1. Segregation and antagonism toward Black people was perpetuated at the hands of a few “real racists” and not largely supported by most of White Society
  2. Martin Luther King Jr. was quiet, law abiding, respectable, and docile in his actions
  3. The movement was led, strategized, and accomplished by the leadership of men
  4. The movement didn’t damage or disrupt the day to day lives of dominant culture.

These myths, now solidly embedded in the consciousness of Americans who believe that liberty and justice are provided to all in our society, stand as barriers to the current movement for the full recognition of Black people’s rights of citizenship. When we believe we have “arrived,” there is nothing left for which to fight. Black Lives Matters seeks to say “we have not arrived, and we must do better.” Better means the full legal, political, social, economic, cultural, and civil equity that reflects the claims we make as a nation to: freedom, liberty, and justice. Better, as it relates to issues of police violence, means the rights of Black individuals to exist without the constant threat of being disproportionately targeted and killed by law enforcement.

We are not, however, simply saying “stop killing Black People.” Black Lives Matter is about the fuller inclusion and validation of diverse racial experiences in the American story. Black Lives Matter seeks to root us in the reality of our unequitable and thus inherently unfree social context and call us to live up to the mythological vision we hold for ourselves. But let’s be clear: Black Lives Matter is not the 1960’s Civil Rights movement. It situates itself in the long history of Black Liberation movements, but it is not the same. The tactics, strategies, and goals cannot remain the same as they did 50 years ago. We cannot resurrect the respectability politics driven, suit and tie, male dominated, singular leader expression of Black Liberation. As has now famously been said “This Ain’t your Mama’s Civil Rights Movement.” Here’s why:

  1. Black Lives Matter is a complex movement of diverse people that has no singular leader. While there are well known faces in the movement, as a community, we do not turn to a singular charismatic leader like MLK to lead the charge. Although it is, in many ways, a myth that MLK was the primary leader of the movement, he has become the face of it. Black Liberation has always been a community-based effort, but never more so than now. Black Lives Matter is an inherently grassroots movement of communities banding together to stand against systemic oppression.
  2. The Revolution is not televised, but expressed through social media. Civil rights leaders of the 60’s relied heavily on making the oppression and violence toward Black people known in order to push for rights such as voting. They used live television as a means to reproduce information across a larger audience. Now, with the dominant White ownership of media conglomerates, national news is no longer (if it ever was) a viable means to mobilize the movement. Social media, Twitter in particular, has become the platform for gathering, mobilizing, and communicating about incidents against Black Lives. It has also provided a forum to document and live stream incidents of racial violence. We are no longer at the mercy of mainstream media, but we rather trust and follow one another in real time. The way that we communicate matters and now, instead of access to information production being only in the hands of the elite, activists and citizens have access to platforms where we can intentionally center narratives and experiences that corporate media avoids or demonizes. It is critical in this movement that a diverse experience of Blackness is expressed and valued, the utilization of social media provides the means for us counter and critique one sided narratives about the experience of Black people.
  3. Respectability politics do not drive the movement. The Civil Rights movements of the 60’s relied heavily on gaining respect from White society by “looking and acting the part.” Every photo you see is of students, activists, and leaders in dresses, suits and ties, and generally “professional” attire. They sought to relate to and divert feelings of fear from White people by adhering to standards of White society; however, it takes only a singular look at photos of people being attacked by dogs, sprayed with fire hoses, or beat down by the police, to see that respectability politics didn’t save the people nor the movement. The reality is that there is neither type nor amount of protest that is acceptable to White dominant society. Even the non-violent and understated act of kneeling during the National Anthem at a football game, in order to make a statement about the hypocrisy of the claims touted in light of the current reality, is met with violence, death threats, and mass scrutiny. How much more so blocking a highway or marching through the streets to make our voices heard? Let’s not forget that violence was used against MLK, in response to his non-violence, in order to send the message that White Supremacy intends to fight to death, quite literally. Black Lives Matter rejects the notion that White norms and standards dictate the type of Blackness that we represent. In this movement, we celebrate the full diaspora of Black people by saying to come as you are. We would rather die for being ourselves than die in the midst of futile attempts to gain the respect of White society
  4. The movement is intersectional. The Civil Rights movement was notoriously rooted in systems that marginalized people that didn’t fit into the heterosexual Christian patriarchy. While women did much of the strategizing, implementation, and risk taking in the movement, their roles are, to this day, underrepresented in favor of uplifting the singular figure of Martin Luther King Jr. This is not so in Black Lives Matter. The hashtag #blacklivesmatter was created in 2013 by Queer Black womxn and since its inception the movement has been led by a highly diverse community of people than that which existed in the Civil Rights movement. It is not enough to say “Black Men Matter.” Black Lives Matter seeks to ascribe dignity, humanity, and rights to the entire and complex nature of what it means to be Black in the United States.
  5. The Church is not leading.This is the first time in the history of Black Liberation Movements that the church and other faith communities haven’t been on the front lines of fighting for the image of God in each other. In order for the church to prove its credibility in believing the image of God in people, we have to earn it, we have to show up, and we have take costly risks to do what is right- to fight against systemic oppression like Jesus did.

Legacy matters and the Black Liberation movement throughout history has left a deep and vibrant legacy of resistance, resilience, and of generating social change; however, we are not done. With every shift in history there comes a new opportunity to engage afresh with the fight for human freedom and dignity. We do this by honoring the work of the past, not with paralyzing nostalgia, but rather with thoughtful contextualization that says “we will try a new thing in this new time.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “Since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.” In this era of fighting toward Black Liberation we must recognize that the system must change, but as it changes and transforms so must our tactics. May we avoid such deep nostalgia for the past that we fail to recognize that this movement, the movement of the present, must reflect our moment in history and lay the groundwork for future movements for liberation to individuate successfully and persevere through the fights of their times.

Photo Credit//Phil Roeder