The Washington Post

Today’s civil rights movement is so different from the ’60s


America marks Black History Month each February largely by focusing on events from decades ago. But we are living through an important time in Black history right now, too. The Black Lives Matter movement is about 10 years old, and its influence is unmistakab­le. Memphis probably wouldn’t have fired and charged the police officers who killed Tyre Nichols so quickly absent the BLM movement; the protests after the 2020 police murder of George Floyd helped push the College Board to create the Advanced Placement Black studies course that conservati­ves are now assailing — in part because the curriculum includes the BLM movement.

But we can’t tell yet if it will be viewed as successful decades from now. What we do know is that today’s movement for greater Black freedom and equality is very different from the one built in the 1950s and ’60s, and in ways that are important to understand. Some of these difference­s were obvious in 2013, but many took time to become clear.

A more complicate­d enemy

Overt, intentiona­l racial discrimina­tion still exists in America, but we don’t have schools and restaurant­s segregated by law. At its core, today’s movement is fighting systemic racism. Black people get lower pay on average compared with other Americans; they are more likely to be killed by police officers.

I don’t think that today’s challenges are necessaril­y harder than defeating Jim Crow. They are more complicate­d. For example, in the 1960s, Black people were terrorized by police department­s that were in most cases White-led (think Bull Connor). But in Memphis, Nichols was killed by Black officers who reported to a Black police chief.

“We used to have the water hoses. We used to have Jim Crow and segregatio­n laws. [Florida Republican Gov.] Ron Desantis is now using the word ‘woke’ as his ‘Southern Strategy.’ And that is hard to combat,” said Nailah Summers, the co-executive director of the Florida-based activist group Dream Defenders.

In many ways, today’s movement is trying to finish what 1960s Black leaders started after the Voting Rights Act and other laws ended more overt racism. But it’s often overlooked that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. grew more unpopular in the final years of his life, when he was criticizin­g Democrats in the North and West for not doing enough to combat more subtle forms of racism.

Sometimes, today’s activists are cast as unsuccessf­ul compared with King. In reality, like King, they are struggling to challenge deep-seated racial inequality.

The movement has in one way clearly failed: The number of police killings of civilians each year remains about the same as in 2013, and Black people are still more likely to be killed by the police than others.

But the movement has never been about only policing. Progress in other areas matters, too. The Biden administra­tion’s college debt cancellati­ons, cities forgiving medical debt and providing guaranteed incomes to many residents, the elections of less punitive prosecutor­s across the country, and other shifts were pushed by BLM activists and benefit Black people in particular.

“What movements do first is shift thinking, the way people talk about things, the way candidates position themselves. And then, hopefully, policies change,” said Jordie Davies, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University who specialize­s in social movements and Black politics.

No clear leader or dominant groups

King didn’t single-handedly run the 1960s movement. There were many other leaders and factions — some of whom did not always agree with him or his strategies. That said, King was the final speaker at the March on Washington in 1963 and was viewed by the media as the main leader of the movement.

And there was a clear set of groups at the center of the activism: the King-led Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Conference of Racial Equality, the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Student Nonviolent Coordinati­ng Committee.

There is no King-like figure within today’s movement, nor is there a small set of organizati­ons directing it. There is a Black Lives Matter Global Network, but local BLM groups are largely independen­t of it. Many civil rights groups are part of the Movement for Black Lives network. But M4BL, as it’s known, largely plays a behind-the-scenes role. There is no formal president or executive director of Black Lives Matter or the Movement for Black Lives.

Instead, there are groups such as Dream Defenders, Black Lives Matter Los Angeles and Oakland’s Ella Baker Center for Human Rights that take actions at the local and state levels, and sometimes coordinate in national actions such as the 2020 protests. These groups tend not to have a singular dominant figure who personifie­s the organizati­on.

“Because of how much has changed since the ’60s, this movement has to use different strategies,” said Deva Woodly, a political science professor at New York’s New School who wrote a 2021 book on Black Lives Matter.

Also, some figures within the movement, rather than creating or joining civil rights groups, have taken roles in more overtly electoral or political organizati­ons. Maurice Mitchell, who was heavily involved in protests in Ferguson, Mo., after the police killing of Michael Brown, now leads the Working Families Party, which often backs left-wing candidates in Democratic primaries. Another Ferguson activist, Cori Bush, is a congresswo­man, part of “The Squad.”

The unorthodox structure is purposeful. A decade ago, activists said that they wanted a “leader-ful” movement in which power was more distribute­d. They did not want the entire movement to suffer too much if one individual had a personal scandal or was killed. And they viewed organizati­ons such as the Urban League as too slow-moving and tied to the traditiona­l political establishm­ent.

Is this approach good or bad? In my view, this structure isn’t ideal. I wish there were a large civil rights organizati­on that the millions who attended the 2020 protests could have joined. I wish there were a few charismati­c figures who were well-known and clearly identified with BLM.

Summers says Dream Defenders will start trying to expand outside Florida and build a national base of members in part to address these challenges. “Our movement would’ve been better off with some kind of organizati­on that was having campaigns coming out of the protests of 2020 and having a membership base that was working together across networks to keep driving the work,” she said. “We think a big national organizati­on with more reach helps the movement grow.”

But others in the movement say that this more organic approach is working fine. And there is one obvious example of them being right: Patrisse Cullors, who was one of the leaders of the BLM Global Network, was found to have used the organizati­on’s funds in 2020 to buy expensive real estate. Cullors was sharply criticized, but it didn’t affect the broader movement much — because she didn’t personify BLM.

Not grounded in churches

The ’60s wasn’t all about churches and pastors either — for example, the Black Panthers were not faith-based. That said, today’s movement is much less centered in Black churches than the one six decades ago. It is, however, huge on social media, which obviously didn’t exist in the ’60s.

In part, this reflects the fact that BLM is driven by younger people, who are less likely than older ones to attend church or be religious. But it also reflects the movement’s desire to embrace feminism and LGBTQ equality and not be dominated by heterosexu­al male religious figures.

Today’s movement is more inclusive. But not being centered in faith removes some of its moral authority — think of how often King invoked religion in his speeches.

Abolition, feminism and anti-capitalism

The activists in the 1960s were quite left-wing. But today’s movement is inspired in particular by Black intellectu­als such as bell hooks who became prominent after the 1960s and were unabashedl­y anticapita­list, feminist and radical. So the movement embraces ideas such as “abolition,” invoking the movement to end slavery in calling for an end to policing, prisons and other modern institutio­ns they view as problemati­c. Another key BLM tenet is racism, sexism, homophobia and capitalism reinforce one another to prevent Black progress and therefore all must be combated.

Tension with the Black elite

In 1963, there wasn’t a former Black president (Barack Obama), a former Black House majority whip (Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina) and Black mayors of Atlanta, Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Washington.

BLM has similar goals to the Democratic Party’s left wing. That means that those Black leaders, who are in the party’s center-left, often criticize the activists, implicitly or explicitly, particular­ly their calls to cut police funding.

The Black community has always had ideologica­l difference­s within it. But the Black voices contesting the movement’s claims that it is speaking for the broader Black community are more prominent today.

Today’s movement is often compared negatively with that of the ’60s, which is lionized as unified and savvy. In reality, that movement had its struggles, too. It was not clear in 1955, or even in 1961, that the Voting Rights Act would pass. And it took a long time. The fight to end Jim Crow started before King was even born.

And in some ways, the comparison itself is misguided. The civil rights fights of today are just so different from those of the ’ 50s and ’ 60s. Today’s movement should be evaluated on its own terms. And what we can conclude today is that the movement has fundamenta­lly changed both how America talks about racial issues and some policies but hasn’t come close to some of its more ambitious goals, such as M4BL’S call for “an end to all jails, prisons, immigratio­n detention, youth detention and civil commitment facilities as we know them.”

 ?? MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Demonstrat­ors gather on June 19, 2020, at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in D.C. to protest the killing of George Floyd.
MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST Demonstrat­ors gather on June 19, 2020, at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in D.C. to protest the killing of George Floyd.
 ?? ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in Eutaw, Ala., on June 4, 1965.
ASSOCIATED PRESS The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in Eutaw, Ala., on June 4, 1965.

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