I learned much of what I know about the civil rights movement at Morehouse College. An extraordinary campus, on a hill in Atlanta, Morehouse was where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Julian Bond, and other notable architects of the civil rights movement once studied under the tutelage of titans like Benjamin Elijah Mays. It's where, in 2006, I enrolled with similar hopes.
Like most historically black colleges and universities, Morehouse is still heavy with the spirit of the civil rights movement that it helped birth; to attend any of these institutions is to surround oneself with ghosts of the struggle. Six years ago, while still a student at Morehouse, I took a class dedicated to bringing in speakers every week to lecture us on that movement.
I felt those ghosts most strongly in that classroom.
Andrew Young — Mayor Young if you grew up within the wide loop of 285, Ambassador Young if your grandma had any of those "We Shall Overcome" posters with sepia photos of movement leaders, and one of King's greatest friends — stood before us.
He was nearly 80 years old, but he still had the gravity of the sun. He told us — a class entirely made up of young black men — about how important it was to carry on the movement that he and Dr. King had championed. He told us how this meant becoming well-dressed paragons of respectability, Spartans in suits, the kind of men required to continue his movement. It was a lecture of respectability politics: the idea that marginalized groups best solicit compassion by affecting a hyperfocused version of mainstream values instead of challenging the mainstream to accommodate the culture they already have. Young taught us we had to become less hip-hop in our speech and dress; he told us to scrub the "ain'ts" and "finnas" from our public language. We had to work twice as hard as white folks to get their sympathy — that was the torch Young passed to my class.
A week later, we had a different visitor. Another civil rights champion, he shared Young's air of gravity and wisdom. But something about him seemed closer to our young sensibilities; he had a touch of rebellion and mischief that Young lacked. And his advice was entirely different from what we had been told before.
This visitor was Julian Bond. In 1960, Bond helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a coalition of younger student activists that often operated alongside King and Young's group of church-based activists, the SCLC. He told us that while the enemy — racism — was the same, the battlefield had changed. To carry on the movement, we would have to be modern warriors. We would have to adapt and innovate for the times. Maybe we would have to let go of some of the respectability, he said. Maybe we had an innate sense of its limits in a society that found a way to dehumanize even our greatest suit-wearing leaders. There's one line I remember verbatim: "A nice suit is a nice suit. Get one," he told us. "But it won't stop a bullet, son."
Bond's recent death gave me cause to reexamine these questions.
When we try to make sense of history, especially the history of capital-M Movements, we tend to mythologize a single-minded march toward justice. But the civil rights movement was diverse. There was a dominant theme, but there was dissonance, too. There was competition. There was strife. Forty years later, two of its luminaries stood before my college class and delivered opposing takes on its legacy. How did these differences actually play out in the history of the civil rights movement? Who was right?
I'm part of a new capital-M Movement: Black Lives Matter. My role has changed over time. In the early stages, I was an activist with a desire to write. Now I'm a writer striving to chronicle the movement and provide space for its voices. Part of that has involved exploring the different aspects of the civil rights movement, and seeing how the movement's history shapes my own. What I've found is at odds with many critiques of Black Lives Matter, even those by luminaries of the civil rights movement.
Most recently, Barbara Reynolds, a prominent black journalist, civil rights movement activist, and biographer of Jesse Jackson Sr., wrote in the Washington Post about the elements of BLM that she believes are unbecoming of a proper movement. In her essay, Reynolds takes the BLM movement to task for a litany of sins against the legacy of civil rights, from rejecting many of her generation's protest strategies to refusing to dress in church clothes like Dr. King did. She blasts BLM for sometimes using rage instead of respectability, for wearing sagging pants, even for cursing at rallies.
Reynolds's essay echoes other cases of intergenerational chafing since BLM began to coalesce after Trayvon Martin's death in 2013. Reverend Al Sharpton shrugged off Black Lives Matter protesters as attention-seeking amateurs. In January 2015, Oprah Winfrey gave an interview to People magazine in which she chided the leadership of BLM and told activists "to take note of the strategic, peaceful intention required when you want real change." This line of criticism isn't specific to famous people. It is echoed by several members of the older generation of black folks, many who remember the civil rights movement or even participated in it.
At bottom, they're all saying the same thing: The old way was best.
But which old way? In her essay, Reynolds cites both Bond and Young as evidence. Does she really think their way was the same, that there was a singular method to the civil rights movement that worked then and would still work now?
When I first read Reynolds's piece last Monday, my response wasn't very productive. "It's just flat-out wrong," I told a similarly incredulous friend. In that moment, I was operating on instinct, the same impulse to protect my own generation's movement that Reynolds no doubt felt about her own. But I've reflected over a few days now, and my mind hasn't changed much: Reynolds's critique is ahistorical. It is especially seductive because of her clout, but it's reductive of the richness of both the present movement and the past she compares it with.
Chances are when you think of the civil rights movement, you do think of Reynolds's portrait. It looks like what you learned in school, the suit-wearing, slow-moving march of "dignity and decorum."
As far as the early Southern Christian Leadership Conference goes, that's probably accurate. But they weren't the whole movement, or even the only successful or important part of it.
Even in the early 1960s, at the height of the civil rights movement where that "old way" comes from, there were influential groups uninterested in respectability. There were activists who didn't care for the slow march or the suits, who were unapproachable, raging and cussing in overalls and leather.
One of these groups was SNCC, founded on an $800 grant from the SCLC by young activists, including future Congressman John Lewis and Julian Bond. Despite its origin, SNCC quickly became its own group with its own agenda, often at odds with King's SCLC. SNCC was a younger organization, more animated by grief and rage, and as time passed they became less and less comfortable with the idea of respectability that has often been so central to black protest ideology. SNCC gradually made it a policy point to abandon elements of respectability. Its members cast off their suits in favor of a more grassroots image, wearing clothes more representative of the South's black middle class. They veered away from the idea of central charismatic (mostly male) leadership, too.
Even when they worked together, the two groups could find themselves at odds. The SCLC and SNCC clashed over the aims of the March on Washington: While the SCLC frequently courted the federal government, SNCC was antagonistic. The SCLC forced SNCC leaders to tone down John Lewis's speech for the event, censoring his harshest attacks on the Kennedy administration. The organizations clashed in Selma, too, where events including Bloody Sunday (detailed in the film Selma) and a vicious beating of Lewis precipitated SNCC's slow movement further and further away from approachability and cooperation as goals.
History shows that both approaches had results.
SNCC was extraordinarily successful in its own right. The group created the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, an organization vital to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Although the SCLC and King are seen as the standard-bearers for Selma, it was John Lewis who led marchers over the bridge during Bloody Sunday, a moment widely considered a turning point for the movement. SNCC proved that decentralized organizations could still show effective leadership and rapid response, and that they could change hearts and minds while wearing whatever regular folks wore.
SNCC wasn't the only civil rights–era group that complicates Reynolds's pictures. There were everything from farmers associations to the Deacons for Defense and Justice, a group of mostly rural chapters of armed men dedicated to protecting people from the Klan. There were also feminist and gay rights splinter groups, as well as black nationalist groups like the Nation of Islam and black nationalist–inspired groups like the Panthers. Many of these were far more radical in their rejection of the SCLC's tenets than SNCC. By and large they have been either whitewashed out of history or recast as monstrous reactionaries, but they too played major roles in shaping the movement and its major victories.
Even the most "respectable" groups changed over time, including the SCLC. What does Reynolds think of Dr. King's mass actions in Chicago and Memphis, where workers and poor folks in work and casual clothes railed and clashed — sometimes violently — against police and counter-protesters? What does Reynolds think of SNCC, which gravitated further and further toward the fullness of Black Power's unaccommodating rage as its members suffered beatings and slayings? What about Nina Simone's protest song "Mississippi Goddamn," which by radio standards of the time was considered downright profane?
How can Reynolds ignore this history — history she herself was a part of? Was SNCC simply not important compared with the dominant image of the SCLC? Yet so many of the key players that even Reynolds cites as examples — people like Bond, Lewis, and Ella Baker — were members of SNCC. These activists became members of Congress, ambassadors, and state senators. Lewis and Bond have been two of the most important links between the old and new movements. How could a generation of budding activists not learn from them?
The answer is that they did.
What Reynolds seems to miss is that while the DNA of the Black Lives Matter movement may not come directly from the SCLC or from Dr. King's philosophies, it still comes from her era and movement. It comes from groups like SNCC that eschewed quiet boycotts, tweed suits, and charismatic speeches; that found success in decentralized leadership, direct action, and, sometimes, naked anger.
The Black Lives Matter movement inhabits many of these spaces first carved out by the groups Reynolds wants to forget. BLM is decentralized, like SNCC. It has courted media, and like many, including the Panthers, it has created its own media, a feat made possible in the present day by the internet. It is animated by grief and rage as much as by concrete policy. Many activists wear the clothes they have always worn as black middle- and lower-class youth. They sag. They wear hoodies. They do it because they understand innately that suits do not indicate who is "evil" and who is "good," who ought to be respected.
In fact, the politicians inflicting most of the grief that mobilizes these activists are the people most likely to be wearing suits at any given moment.
And listen: I love wearing suits. But the idea that they make me more respectable than anything else doesn't square with my own experience. I am not a different worker or writer if I'm wearing a suit and tie or my favorite Jordan 11 Breds and a durag.
I may be writing this while wearing just that.
I study a speech that Julian Bond gave at Bowling Green, in 1968:
"What will be needed, in addition to an experienced and agitating group of young activists, will be more than just the confluence of people of mutual interest and mutual concern coming together. What will be needed is what the great black man, Frederick Douglass, called for in another speech about 116 years ago. "It is not the light that is needed," Douglass said. "but fire. It is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened, the conscience of the nation must be startled, the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed, its crimes against God and man must be denounced."
If Bond wasn't prophesying the Black Lives Matter movement, he came close. They are a group of agitating young activists, gaining experience by the moment. They have improved upon the mistakes of their predecessors, something Reynolds acknowledges by noting how BLM is offering more space for women and members of the LGBTQ spectrum.
Women founded BLM and many of the organizations in the loose constellation around it. The rage that many of the protesters carry is not the self-defeating vitriol Reynolds warns against, but the exact kind of fire and thunder that Bond extolled. They seek every day to expose the hypocrisy of the nation. That very aim is evident in the entire movement's name.
My instinct is to try to bridge this gap between generations and movements, and as a consequence I find my emotional resting place is sadness. I am saddened that some elders like Reynolds cannot see their own selves in the people marching today. Maybe this is unavoidable; after all, many of the leaders given as examples in different generations probably never saw eye to eye. Maybe it is a natural byproduct of one generation growing up and striking out. Is this how it always works? I don't know.
My work is writing about the rich history of black America. That work has led me to understand that movement history, like all of black history, is a history of iterations. It is jazz, it is a history of a people finding chords from another time and putting them together into something new that works for the challenges of the present. It is learning from Bond, from Young, from Martin, from Baker, from Fannie Lou Hamer, from Diane Nash, from James Baldwin, and also learning from Netta Elzie, from Patrisse Cullors, from DeRay McKesson, from Jesse Jackson, from Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is synthesis, and it is a beautiful and elegant whole.
Somehow, the words of Young and Bond are both parts of the whole, a whole that young activists have considered and adapted as they walk in their footsteps. Reynolds and some other elders claim they cannot get behind Black Lives Matter because it is strange and bizarre to them, but I know it is more similar to what they built than it is dissimilar. Most importantly, the ties and causes that bind the activists in both iterations of the struggle are much more powerful than any of their differences.