The Black Lives Matter movement originated as an organization to combat police violence but has morphed into an organization for civil rights issues. How does it compare to the civil rights movement, and the Black Power movement of the 1960s?
Here & Now‘s Robin Young speaks with Peniel Joseph (@penieljoseph), a scholar of African-American history and professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, about his cover story for the New Republic, “Why Black Lives Matter Still Matters.”
On how Black Lives Matter compares to the civil rights and Black Power movements
“I think it straddles really both movements, but it’s more comparable to Black Power than civil rights. That’s primarily because BLM movement has a structural criticism of racism. So, they’re not just criticizing the justice system. They’re making a claim that the justice system in the United States is connected to unemployment, public school segregation, environmental racism and inequality. So it’s just basically the police are the tip of a larger iceberg of systemic oppression. What makes them so interesting is this notion of intersectionality. The three cofounders of that hashtag were all black women, feminist and queer identified. When we think about BLM, they’re really the first movement coming out of that civil rights, Black Power, black liberation struggle that places gender, sexuality, youth, poverty at the core of that movement for social change.”
On women in historical black rights movements and Black Lives Matter
“The Panthers and the wider Black Power movement, and when we think about civil rights as well, deeply implicated in systems of patriarchy and sexism and misogyny against women. With that being said, black women were also key organizers of both the civil rights protests and also Black Power. Here, with BLM being so decentralized, you’ve had black women share the spotlight and take the lead in terms of both organizing the actions and disruptions of the BLM. So, it’s really a change for the better, I would argue, when you have black women at the forefront of the leadership, but also when we think about the theoretical foundations of the leadership. They’re thinking about black women being head of single-parent households in the United States. They’re thinking about black women and rates of incarceration, the wealth gap between black and white women and the income gap, which is very important because black women are the major voters within the African-American community. They’re the major breadwinners. They’re the major people who raise the young black boys and young black men who are often victims of police violence.”
On how Black Lives Matter is more closely related to Black Power than the civil rights movement
“King is initially a reformer, and he becomes a political revolutionary. And in a way, except for adhering to nonviolence, he really starts to have a structural criticism against Vietnam, militarism, racism, human rights violations. When we think about the BLM movement, they’re both taking the civil disobedience tactic nonviolently from that civil rights struggle, but they’re ratcheting up by calling for a systematic, wide change. Their tactics have also been very disruptive, in line with the Black Power period. When we think them shutting down highways, some people were very supportive of that, but it’s to the chagrin of others. There were Black Lives Matter rallies that were disrupting the status quo on college campuses. They were even disrupting people’s brunch in New York City and other cities to the chagrin of many yuppies and buppies and elites of all stripes. So when we think about the BLM, it’s really about both that structural critique and the robust, in-your-face tactics that they’re using.”
On the movement’s decentralization of leadership
“That’s a good thing in that they’re very similar civil rights organizing vis-a-vis the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Their nickname was SNCC, and when we think about SNCC, we associate them by 1966 with Stokely Carmichael and the call for Black Power. But initially, they were founded by Ella Jo Baker, who’s an activist from North Carolina, a feminist, a trade unionist and really one of the most important organizers of the 1960s. And she tells the young people not to be hijacked or come under the thumb of any of the older leadership. Even though Ella Baker’s around 60 at this time, she’s making an argument that decentralized leadership is better than having one central political mobilizer like King, who the movement sort of rises and falls with. So, when we think about the BLM movement, what’s so great about the dozens of chapters that they have is that there isn’t one person who’s leading all of this. That makes it harder for media to identify and set up neat narratives with the movement. But I think that it means that the movement’s going to be much longer lasting because we actually have people doing work and organizing, and it’s not a top down hierarchical leadership structure.
“And we’ve seen that through BLM and the Movement for Black Lives policy agenda that was published last summer that talked about ending the war against black people, divesting from criminal justice institutions that incarcerate and lead to mass incarceration and investing in black youth in neighborhoods and communities. I would say we do have several young activists who people know who they are, including Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, DeRay McKesson and others, who are organizing and young people know who they are. But it’s just not the top-down celebrity culture that we saw in the context of the 1960s and ’70s. And remember that also — it didn’t work. Very, very famous people didn’t lead to the kind of substantive transformation that people had hoped for because if it had, we wouldn’t have the need for BLM movement 50 years later in 2017.”
On what he’d say to people who think the pendulum has swung too far from government standing up for law enforcement
“Well, I’d say that’s absolutely the wrong perspective because the BLM movement really illustrated the depth and breadth of structural racism and state violence through law enforcement against African-American, against Latino and, at times, poor white communities in the United States. If anything, we need dramatic and radical reform that actually goes beyond what Obama’s Justice Department politically could achieve. We have to change and transform this whole society. And in that way, they do go back to Dr. King and when King talked about a bitter and beautiful struggle for social and political change.”