The Hope and Burden of The Civil Rights Movement

By Carla Murphy Jan 16, 2015

It’s nearly* six months since white police officer Darren Wilson killed 18-year-old, unarmed civilian Michael Brown in Ferguson, a St. Louis, Mo. suburb. There and around the country, the fatal shooting released a pressure valve of outrage about brutal and racist policing in black communities. Nationwide, people have marched, camped out in parking lots, blocked highway traffic, died in, sung in and even interrupted bourgie brunch. But to what end? What’s next?

Many are calling the Brown protests (and those about the fatal police chokehold of 40-year-old Staten Island father Eric Garner) "a new civil rights movement." But as new, creative actions crop up to expand the common cry, #BlackLivesMatter, from the street to other areas of civic life, they’re butting up against the legacy and perceived perfection of the old movement. That 60-year halo burns burns bright not just for Boomers but ordinary Millennials, too.

St. Louis rapper and activist Tef Poe captures the burden of history when he directly addresses his peers’ expectations in, ‘War Cry’: "This ain’t your daddy’s civil rights movement," he raps. Still, the pressure put on this burgeoning movement from every part of society to conform to the PBS highlight reel is real.

No less than African-American history movie maven, Oprah Winfrey has reinforced the movement standard by which current protests are judged. "I think it’s wonderful to march and to protest and it’s wonderful to see all across the country, people doing it," she told People. "But what I’m looking for is some kind of leadership to come out of this to say, ‘This is what we want. …This is what has to change, and these are the steps that we need to take to make these changes, and this is what we’re willing to do to get it.’"

Charles HF Davis III, a 30-year-old education researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity Education, is quick to dismiss Winfrey’s claims about unclear demands: "The information is available. If you don’t know, you’re not looking," he says. What Davis, who is completing a dissertation on contemporary student activism centered on the Dream Defenders, wants to talk about is the difference in leadership.

"This generation [of student activists] is very intentional about not having a charismatic leader," like a Martin Luther King Jr. or a Malcolm X, Davis says. That’s perhaps its biggest difference with the classic civil rights movement, he adds. There are many leaders–and Davis points to the Ismaaiyl Brinsley fallout to say that’s a good thing. Between shooting his ex-girlfriend and later murdering two New York City police officers in December, Brinsley bragged of killing cops in an Instagram post and referenced Eric Garner and Mike Brown. Conservative criticism quickly linked Brinsley directly to the protests then taking place in New York City.

"It’d have been easier to label the entire movement based on one outlier if there was a single leader," Davis says. "But because many leaders can say Brinsley has nothing to do with us, it’s more difficult to co-opt the movement."

Perhaps the times required a charismatic leader in order for the civil rights movement to progress–but do all movements need one in order to succeed? "That’s the $64,000 question for historians," says Steven Lawson, a professor emeritus at Rutgers University and co-author of, "Debating the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1968."

A single leader, usually selected by the grassroots, has always come to the fore, Lawson says, name-checking Douglass, Randolph, King and Mandela. What sets them apart is not only respect from the people but their ability to deliberate with the people in power who make public policy decisions.

Whether or not the generation mobilized by the Brown-Garner protests will gravitate towards a single leader out of the current crop remains to be seen, Lawson says. The jury is still out.

Danielle McGuire is a history professor at Wayne State University and author of "At The Dark End of the Street" a book about black women, rape and resistance during the civil rights and Black Power eras. "If people really understood the civil rights movement, we would understand that the movement made King," and not vice versa, she says.

Take sit-ins. "Students prodded and pushed King to take risks and use direct action instead of passive action action like the boycott." McGuire sees die-ins as part of a tradition sharpened during civil rights and she notes that even today’s level of backlash against protesters’ tactics is similar.

"We tend to romanticize the support that activists got in the past but in reality it was very little," she says. "A lot of the criticism that I hear around protests now, I could pick up a newspaper in the 1950s and read the same thing."

To McGuire’s point, one North Carolina editor writing in February 1960 praised "Negroes of the South’s" earlier campaign to win legal rights around segregation. But he couldn’t get behind the new lunch counter sit-ins. "It does not follow that [we will support a] campaign designed to intrude into the areas of personal and private choice," he wrote. "Indeed by moving the struggle to this new arena, the young Negroes may risk alienating some of the support they have enjoyed."

Similar criticism or dismissal is being levied at protests in today’s consumer leisure spaces like die-ins at malls and lately, #BlackBrunch. That new tactic originated in Oakland last December but virulent backlash brought it to national attention when it hit New York City.

One Oakland co-organizer who identifies as Wild Tigers, 28, says the main purpose of #BlackBrunch is to acknowledge people of color killed by police or vigilante citizens–particularly among patrons, "who can choose not to deal with the everyday reality of the war against black people." Protesters typically read names of victims aloud within a five-minute period.

Wild Tigers’ sentiment behind wanting society to feel like all blacks’ lives hold value isn’t all that dissimilar from one expressed in Febuary 1960 by one of the Greensboro Four, Joseph A. McNeil. Then 17, he told The New York Times what provoked him to sit at Woolworth’s whites-only lunch counter: "Segregation makes me feel like I’m unwanted," he said. Many black youth today say the same, certainly around policing and criminal justice. The sit-ins kicked off by McNeil and three of his classmates have been widely credited since as the key turning point in the civil rights movement.

"We tend to get nostalgic about the way things used to be," Davis says, pointing out that the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts did not begin as national demands. Rather, "they were concessions to things happening at local levels."

Davis looks around and sees young leaders who’re purposeful about avoiding what they see as the classical movement’s mistakes: too much dependence on a single leader and marginalizing women and members of the LGBTQ community.

"If you speak to the leaders of this movement they acknowledge their limitations and blind spots," he says. "Everything isn’t always gonna work. But they’re committed to figuring things out."

"I’m not worried," he says.

* Post has been updated since publication to reflect that six months will have passed on February 9.