How Black Lives Matter fits into the long history of American radicalism

Community organizations and activists demanding police accountability gathered for a rally and march at the clock in Grand Central Terminal on August 8, 2019, to commemorate the five-year anniversary of Mike Brown’s death by Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson.
Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

Black Lives Matter was created in 2013 by three Black women — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi — in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman. Over the last seven years, it has evolved into something much bigger: a broad multiethnic liberation movement focused on criminal justice reform, racist policing, and adjacent causes.

During the course of this shift, the movement has not only expanded but become more radical in its demands for equality across the board. And yet, surprisingly, this has increased, rather than diminished, its appeal.

BLM had little support across the country as recently as 2017. But it has become steadily more popular, and in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, its popularity has surged to the point that it’s now supported by a majority of Americans. By any measure, that suggests BLM is succeeding — culturally and politically.

But how should we think of Black Lives Matter as a historical phenomenon? Is it the sort of radical social movement we’ve seen before in this country? Or is it something new, something different, without any precursors?

To get some answers, I reached out to Michael Kazin, a professor of history and American social movements at Georgetown University and also the co-editor of Dissent magazine. We discussed how BLM fits into the long tradition of American radicalism, what its proponents can learn from previous eras, and why he thinks BLM is both a political and a cultural struggle.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

As someone who studies the history of social movements in America, how do you view this moment?

Michael Kazin

It’s a remarkable moment in some ways, because we have a very unpopular right-wing president and a set of popular social movements on the left. Which is surprising, because usually social movements on the left get more popular when you have a liberal or progressive president in office. This is what happened in the ’30s and ’60s, for example. I think we might be witnessing the end of a conservative era.

Sean Illing

What does the end of a conservative era mean?

Michael Kazin

Well, we’ve had Democratic presidents in this era, Clinton and Obama, but the guiding ideas of the time have been conservative ideas about government and labor and race. And now that could be changing in a very radical way.

If Democrats are able to win the presidency and tip both houses of Congress, then you could see another major vault to the left in American history, the kind of vault we saw during Reconstruction and during the progressive eras in the ’30s and ’60s and early ’70s. But all of this energy doesn’t always translate to big legislative revolutions. For laws to pass, it’ll take a combination of left-wing social movements and politicians who are willing to accommodate those movements in important ways.

Sean Illing

The Black Lives Matter movement is at the forefront of this leftward push. Do you consider BLM a radical social movement, or does it just seem that way to those who are more invested in the current order?

Michael Kazin

Like all large social movements, it has its radical aspects and its more reformist aspects. That was true of the labor movement in the ’30s, which had a lot of communists and socialists in it. It was true of Reconstruction too, in which you had more radical Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens, who wanted to confiscate the land of anybody who had fought for the Confederacy and give it to African Americans, to freed slaves. We saw it in the ’60s as well, when the Black Freedom Movement had its reformist side pushing for integration of institutions and the Voter Rights Act, Civil Rights Act, and you had the Black Panthers and other Black Power groups who wanted one big revolution.

So you see this dynamic in every mass social movement. It’s hard to say what will become of BLM. You’ve got the different aspects to it. People can unite around some moderate demands like passing laws that will handcuff the police in terms of their capacity to use violence. The more radical aspects, like abolishing the police altogether, go much further. And there are conversations about reparations and restructuring the economy to ensure not just equal opportunities but equal outcomes.

As the movement gets larger, you’ll see more differences within it. But no single one of those manifestations will define the movement as a whole.

Sean Illing

What makes a “radical” movement radical? Is it more about the nature of the demands? Or how those demands are perceived by the power structure?

Michael Kazin

That’s a very good question. The power structure, of course, often perceives any movement that wants to change the fundamentals of how the country operates as radical. Martin Luther King Jr. was perceived to be a radical — and I think he was. But the demands he was making publicly, until the end of his life, really weren’t that radical. He simply wanted the 14th and 15th Amendments to be applied to Black people.

Any movement that goes to the root of things is radical. An anti-capitalism movement is radical. A movement which calls for reparations for African Americans is radical. There’s a radical ethics that diagnoses something wrong about the basic organization of society and seeks to undo that wrong, and conservative figures in power have always viewed these efforts as existential threats.

The New Deal was perceived as radically socialist by a lot of people in business and in the power structure, but in retrospect it was really just reformist.

Sean Illing

The shifting perception of these movements is fascinating to me, especially in this moment. In the case of Black Lives Matter, it’s remarkable to see just how popular it has become. In the last two weeks alone, I believe, support for BLM has increased as much as it has in the last two years.

What does that signal to you?

Michael Kazin

It signals that racial attitudes in America, which began to change after World War II and then took a big step forward in the 1960s with the success of the Black Freedom Movement and the Civil Rights Act, have really evolved. This has been a very long and hard road, with moments of backlash along the way, but this is what you’d expect because racism is so deeply woven into that fabric of American history and culture. Obviously, the horrific killing of George Floyd was a catalyst, but I think we’re seeing the results of young people coming of age and being much more open to racial equality than previous generations.

Sean Illing

And BLM, whatever one thinks of it, strikes me as the continuation of some of the most successful social movements in American history.

Michael Kazin

I think that’s right, and two of those movements, the Abolitionist movement and the Black Freedom Movement, were also organized around the demands of equality for African-Americans. Of course, you could say this is all part of one long movement, but it had various phases to it. I think what we’re seeing now is very much part of the Black Freedom Movement, which has had its ups and downs throughout its history. But the thread tying all of it together has always been the push for fundamental equality at every level of society and in every major institution.

What’s interesting about BLM is that it could be a catalyst to a reform movement in the same way the labor movement in the ’30s was essential to moving the Democratic Party to the left. A lot of people don’t know this, but it was really in the ’30s that the Democrats began to move away from Jim Crow. It took a long time, obviously, but that’s when it started, and it was because labor was interracial and labor was crucial to the success of the Democrats in the ’30s and ’40s.

Sean Illing

How were these previous movements greeted when they emerged? I ask because the goals seem, in retrospect, so sensible and obvious, but I imagine at the time they were seen as extremist and threatening.

Michael Kazin

Definitely. The great Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci talked about how social movements can change the common sense of society. What we all take to be normal or moral in society can change pretty quickly, and it changes because of the force and success of social movements. Black Lives Matter has been enormously successful in this respect. Any movement pushing for this level of change will be opposed by people who don’t support those changes — that’s just an axiom of politics. What’s astonishing about this movement is that it’s not provoking more backlash — at least not yet.

Sean Illing

Well, I wonder about the “not yet” part. I worry about movements like Black Lives Matter or “abolish the police” becoming so sprawling and disjointed that they lose their focus, or get overwhelmed by revolutionary spasms that may undercut the key goals.

Are there important lessons from the past on this front?

Michael Kazin

I was a New Leftist in the late ’60s. I was one of those people who went too far. I think I undermined some of my goals, even though in the end we were successful in winning our main demands, which were to fight for racial equality and an end to the Vietnam War. But along the way I did some stupid things.

I think one big lesson is that mass lawbreaking undermines a movement. As MLK used to say, you want the other side to be seen as the violent side, you want the other side reacting to your civil disobedience, to your respect for order. You don’t want to be seen as running amok without leadership, without discipline, because you’re trying to bring about change and people are scared of change. You don’t want people to be scared of you at the same time they’re scared of change. That’s one lesson.

Another lesson is the importance of building alliances. One of the reasons why I keep saying that leftists should support Biden and ally with Pelosi and Chuck Schumer this year is that we have to get as many Democrats as possible elected because only then will there be the political space to go further than they would like to go. There are limits to what a movement can create on its own. Eventually, you’ve got to get laws passed, and a movement can’t pass laws by itself.

Sean Illing

Is it better to view BLM or “abolish the police” less as political projects and more as cultural movements that shift the zeitgeist and therefore pave the way for political changes in the future?

Michael Kazin

It’s a great question, and I think it’s both for me. As I said before, it’s obviously helped to change the attitudes of a lot of white Americans and that’s a cultural change in consciousness. Without that change in consciousness, we can’t get real political changes because there would be too much resistance to them, and politicians are averse to doing things which are unpopular.

So it’s important to demand immediate change but also wise to not expect it to happen that fast. These things take a long time. If activists don’t have a longterm strategy, they’re going to fail. This isn’t easy, of course. On the one hand, you want movements to build on a sense of urgency when outrage happens, the way it did with George Floyd and with other Black Americans killed by the police. But at the same time, you can’t let that sense of urgency impede you from organizing for the long-term.

Sean Illing

My sense is that we’re still very much in the beginning of whatever this is, and so there’s a lot of symbolic activism and a lot of enthusiasm but not necessarily a clear strategy for seizing power. What do you think a movement like this can do to channel all this energy and goodwill into enduring, concrete changes?

Michael Kazin

I think it has to find ways to work with other movements on the left. The change these activists seek is one of economic equity as well as an end to racist treatment by the cops. That was true for the Black movement in Fredrick Douglass’s day as well as the freedom movement led, in part, by MLK in the 1960s. The fight to have the power over how the police treat you is necessarily a fight to gain more power and resources on the job, in one’s neighborhood, and in education. But Black people can’t win that fight by themselves. It will take allies from other races and a demand for universal programs in health care, the environment, housing, etc. — and interracial institutions like labor and, yes, the Democratic Party.

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