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  • The Rise of #blacklivesmatter
  • Stefan M. Bradley (bio)

The cases of police-involved violence and deaths in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, Cleveland, and Cincinnati make for the best civics lessons ever. Young people, out of fear, anger, or general concern, have quickly learned the roles of governors, US and state senator/representatives, mayors, city council members, county executives, prosecuting attorneys, police chiefs, and other officials. They realize the occupants of those positions are directly affecting their life chances. With that in mind, Black Lives Matter activists are participating in the democracy by forcing national and political candidates to address their issues. In a similar fashion to the young activists of the past, some current agitators are even looking to engage the democracy by actually running for offices and being appointed to political posts. I predict that scholars will see the Movement for Black Lives of this era as one of the finer displays of democracy in recent US history.

Like others, I have related the occurrences of the last few years with those of the past struggles for black freedom in my courses and elsewhere. Regarding Ferguson, Missouri, some of my students were the first on the ground during the crisis. I followed them to the streets because I worried for their safety. These were students whom I had personally taught about the Black Freedom Movement, and it was very interesting to watch them grapple with the lessons of the past as they became freedom fighters themselves. In interviews with national and international media, we tried to show the depth of black opinion and thought.

In the last year, so many students wondered how these events could happen and how people reacted to similar tragic incidents in the past. Thankfully, in the past two decades, there has been a community-conscious cadre of activists and scholars who have published their remembrances and studies of Civil Rights and Black Power to provide reading material for the students. Regarding Civil Rights, Human Rights, and Black Power, see the works of Clarence Taylor, Hasan Jeffries, Brian Purnell, Carol Anderson, Jeanne Theoharis, Komozi Woodard, Peniel Joseph, Ibram X. Kendi, Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, Rhonda Y. Williams, and Scott Brown.

It is quite natural to seek out the similarities between the current campaign for Black Lives and the Civil Rights/Black Power struggles of the 1960s. Many scholars, intellectuals, and activists view Civil Rights, Black Power, and Black Lives Matter struggles as all part of a larger Black Liberation Struggle to which late scholar/activist Vincent Harding referred. To be certain, there are some comparisons between the current and past freedom campaigns that stick.

One similarity is the breadth of action necessary to highlight what black activists view as abuse and mistreatment of black bodies. Scholars have ably shown that Civil Rights and Black Power struggles took place in every region of the country. That is also the case with the Black Lives campaign, which dispels of the myth that black people only had (have) problems in the South.

Another key comparison is that youth were vital to the struggle back then, and youth are the driving force of the struggle now. Young people understood back then that the court cases and political processes were not sufficiently addressing the problems of institutional racism on the ground, and so they used direct action to confront those issues. Whether it was striking a high school or riding at the front of a bus, young people did not wait for permission from the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. or any other “leader;” they just acted. Today, black youth do not need a study or video to know that their bodies are policed a certain way. Studies and videos are useful for convincing mainstream America, but the black community is well acquainted with the strained relationship between law enforcement and black bodies.

By the end of the 1960s, many young people rejected the ideas of respectability and messianic leadership that largely black middle class clergy espoused for those in the movement. Today, the Black Lives activists reject respectability as a requirement for their participation in the struggle, and they definitely do not rely on any one leader. For current activists...


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