Jeanne Theoharis calls out the abuse and misuse of the Civil Rights MovementHistorians in the News
tags: civil rights movement, Black lives matter
Distorted renderings of movement history took on heightened danger as a new movement gained national attention. Galvanizing around the issues of police brutality, criminal injustice, and mass incarceration, Black Lives Matter came to national prominence after the killing of Trayvon Martin and subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman in 2013, and the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. The vision of Black Lives Matter was articulated by three Black queer women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi; its various local incarnations have encompassed a broad palette of issues affecting Black lives, from enduring school inequality to living-wage struggles, and from police accountability to gender justice. Taking to the streets, blocking traffic, disrupting political events and commerce, and launching die-ins on college campuses, this new leader-full movement, organized predominantly by young Black people but joined by a rainbow of others and Black people of all ages, has forced the nation to grapple with issues of racial injustice in law enforcement and the legal system.
The civil rights movement has lurked everywhere in public discussion of Black Lives Matter. While there have been notable connections and moments of camaraderie—for instance, Harry Belafonte’s Justice League, as well as by many of the former members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—an undertone of concern and fear about the protesters and problems with the movement they are building have come from many corners, the criticism laced with problematic allusions to the civil rights movement. Former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee outrageously stated that Martin Luther King Jr. would be “appalled” by BLM’s strategy and called on protesters to be more like King. King’s niece, Alveda King, referred to BLM’s methods as “inappropriate.” Oprah Winfrey called for “some kind of leadership to come out of this” and cautioned young activists “to take note of the strategic, peaceful intention if you want real change.” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer criticized protests in Baltimore as not being “in the tradition of Martin Luther King.” And Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed invoked the history of King to celebrate Atlanta’s tradition of free speech, but then admonished protesters: “Dr. King would never take a freeway.”...
Many saw the invocation of the civil rights movement against BLM as a way for critics to stand on the sidelines. “The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander,” actor-activist Jesse Williams made clear at the 2016 BET awards, in a speech that went viral. “If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression.” “What I’ve learned from the [BLM] activists and what is going on today is, those of us who have lived almost a century, have no right to cynicism,” Harry Belafonte joined in. “Mostly, the people who turn away from radical thought are people who don’t like to be uncomfortable.” Recognizing the need to steep themselves in fuller histories of Black struggle, popular education and study groups have become an important but much less covered aspect of the many Black Lives Matter groups and mobilizations. And many BLM activists have partnered with a set of elders willing to build on those lineages. But that has not caused commentators to stop using the civil rights movement to chastise the work of BLM activists.
Fed up with the prominent misuse of history against Black Lives Matter, sixty-six former SNCC activists published a statement in July 2016 marking the continuities of struggle ....