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Generational Differences in Black Activism

  • July 22nd 2016

Matt Thompson, DeRay Mckesson, Enola Aird, Jim Wallis, and Marc Morial discuss A Civil Rights Movement for the 21st Century: Black Lives Matter at the Aspen Ideas Festival in June.

As the head of the National Urban League, Marc Morial is charged with leading one of the oldest and most significant civil-rights organizations in the United States. In late June, he sat on a stage with DeRay McKesson, a prominent leader in Black Lives Matter, the most significant black-activist movement of the present.

Over the course of an hour, both men sketched contrasting notions of what black activism ought to look like going forward, sometimes in conversation with one another, other times in response to other panelists or my colleague, Matt Thompson, who moderated the event. They spoke at The Aspen Ideas Festival on June 29. The Festival is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. Morial began by touting his organization’s annual State of Black America report, which it has issued for 40 years. He stated that black activism is most successful when driven by facts, not opinion.

A bit later in his remarks he addressed Black Lives Matter directly. “Mobilization is the contribution of the Black Lives Matter movement,” he declared. “Before the high-profile killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and other young black men killed by police, “I would ask myself, where are the young people, where are the young activists? Has life gotten so good?” Morial said. “Because before that you didn't see a visible movement. So I'm saying that to compliment. Every young generation has to come of age and find its stride and issues.”

Going forward, he said, he hopes Black Lives Matter activism “is not something we're going to talk about three years from now through a historical rearview mirror––that it is going to be sustainable... because we have significant changes that have to be made... whether it comes to voting, reform of the criminal justice system, fixing the relationship between police and communities, whether it's the racial wealth gap, whether it's income inequality, whether it's infant mortality, all across the range.”

Harkening back in time, he argued that the most important characteristic of Martin Luther King’s generation, “the beauty of the Civil-Rights Movement of the 1960s,” was its combination of mobilization, consciousness, and major policy changes.

“They got the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” he said. “They got the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on the books. They got the Fair Housing Act of 1968 on the books. Johnson was compelled by civil rights to launch the War on Poverty, where Head Start came from, where a whole series of measures came from that continue to impact how we live.”

Today, he argued, “we have to mobilize, we have to have activism,” but there has to be more. “We've got an election,” he said. “And whether one is in love with the candidates and their positions or not, if we have a large voter turnout, the issues we're talking about here are gonna be heard. If we have a low voter turnout, then politicians are going to go behind closed doors and say, see, we can go back to business as usual. Because policymakers pay attention to people who show up at the ballot box. They pay attention to activism, yes, but we also have to translate it...”

* * *

DeRay McKesson focused many of his remarks on the question of how best to mobilize people. The statistics that the Urban League publishes on black inequality have been around a long time, he said, but the underlying inequalities didn’t get people in the street. He added that there is no reliable data on police brutality.

“Data is people’s lived realities, too,” he said.

As he sees it, many people misread why young black activists got in the streets and stayed in the streets. “It's broken bodies,” he explained. “When we got into the street, a hashtag didn't call us into the street. It was Mike's body for four and a half hours, that was real.” He felt that should inform admonitions to vote. “It's not that people don't understand that policy is important,” McKesson said. “I think people are actually making a choice to say, I am going to withhold my participation from the system because I want it to break. Some people are making that choice. Whether you agree or not, that's a real thing in how people are choosing to participate.”

With respect to the Civil-Rights Movement, he declared,“I don't necessarily have to live in the shadow of King every day that we do this work. King was not the first or only organizer, he was an important organizer.” And today’s organizers have different tools than bygone organizers, he observed. “King had to protest during the day because they needed the tape to get to the news station at night. I can tweet right now and I have 400,000 followers. My words can ripple in a way they didn't have access to... Many times we talk about this without acknowledging that the space is different.” Today’s activists “stayed in the streets for a long time,” he said. 

People from older generations “who now embrace the movement were like, go home, this isn't the way to do it. And we did it because we felt like we tried everything else and it failed. We called. We emailed. We voted. And we would tell people, Harriet didn't vote for her freedom. Voting is one of many tools. But it's not the panacea.”

He hoped for better cooperation between generations going forward.

“There are people who want to be our parents and not our partners and our peers,” he said. “There are people who are just withdrawing from spaces, saying I don’t want to go fight you, I already fought the police. And I fought them all day. So what I'm not going to do is sit in a room and fight an older person. I'm just never going to be in that room again... People come with these transformational moments, like I get it now. Let me tell you what to do. That isn't what it means to be a partner.”

By Conor Friedersdorf, staff writer at The Atlantic

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