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  • Making a Movement
  • Marcia Chatelain (bio)

When does a moment become a movement? Is it in when the wails of grief over a person gunned down by police or a neighborhood vigilante become a rallying cry for change?

Is it when a three-word slogan or sixteen-character hashtag deftly represents the fight to dismantle racial injustice, to uproot economic inequality, and to end state violence?

Or does the transformation begin when organizers appear on cable news, are evoked by presidential candidates, or are welcomed to the White House?

Since the late summer of 2014, when police officer Darren Wilson killed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the world has witnessed the evolution of an unprecedented movement. At every moment of this process, this movement has elicited a number of questions and debates about social change in the twenty-first century. The movement that calls itself Black Lives Matter has provided new models of a freedom struggle—from what leaders look like to what direct action requires to how the seeds of a struggle are planted in ground fertilized by social media.

As a historian of African American people in the twentieth century and an admirer of Black Lives Matter, I’m often asked if I think that this movement “measures up” to the so-called Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. This line of inquiry—whether it comes from a place of wonder or is wrapped in a tone of dismissiveness—reveals why accessible scholarship on social movements is desperately needed. Although recent monographs on black freedom movements have used nuance and texture to dispute a sanitized, Hollywood version of the 1950s and 1960s, it is still common to hear misunderstandings of Civil Rights and how movements coalesce and define themselves. These constant mischaracterizations imperil rich storytelling and the process of building a truly democratic state. So, I relish the opportunity to participate in this special issue devoted to the critical work of social movements and to provide a few reflections on a momentous movement.

We are not without texts that allow us to answer questions about the current activism landscape, from Barbara Ransby’s groundbreaking biography of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee founder Ella Baker to Danielle Maguire’s masterful reconsideration of civil rights as a resistance movement against the sexual exploitation of black women. Recent scholarship that has centered women and gender analysis in the history of civil rights has provided an important warning call to activists about the way sexism can undermine the most principled of movements. Women’s and gender studies gives us the critical frames for scholars to demand an accounting for the women seen and not heard in movement leadership. These intellectual forces have sparked creative writers, historians, and documentarians to capture the stories of activists who struggled with the seemingly disparate aims of feminism and anti-racism. The tensions that sparked the introduction of the “woman question” into the mid twentieth century race moment have not disappeared, but the ability to articulate an intersectional justice movement is due, in part, to the rewriting of the master narrative of great men leading great movements.

Similarly, the thoughtful inclusion of violence against transgendered women within the Black Lives Matter platform highlights just how unbound today’s activists are by earlier movements’ dependence on only welcoming bodies that comply with normative, and even heroic, standards. The brilliance of Black Lives Matter is its resistance from the character assassination of the victims of state violence and their insistence that black lives are substantive and valuable. In a piece for The Feminist Wire, movement co-creator Alicia Garza wrote:

Black Lives Matter…goes beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within some Black communities, which merely call on Black people to love Black, live Black and buy Black, keeping straight cis Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all. Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation...


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