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The Next Civil Rights Movement?
Kareem Jackson, a St. Louis hip-hop artist who goes by the name Tef Poe, was interviewed this February by a BBC talk show host about why the Black Lives Matter movement was necessary. A leader in the organization Hands Up United, which was founded in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder, Poe explained: “One of the negligent areas of the civil rights movement is that we did not move the moral compass of racism to the right direction.”
Though the 1960s movement addressed the civil and political rights that were denied to black people—access and use of public accommodations, the right to vote, and ensuring fair employment and housing opportunities—it did not directly confront the racialized degradation black people endured, and many continue to endure, at the hands of the police. What the Black Lives Matter protests have done, however, is not only put police reform on the policy agenda but demanded that American society reconsider how it values black lives….
Unlike the civil rights movement, the focus of Black Lives Matter—on policing in black and brown communities, on dismantling mass incarceration—is also being articulated less as a demand for specific civil or political rights, and more as a broader claim for “black humanity.” This insistence on black humanity has repeatedly been used by Black Lives Matter activists as a catalyst for political action. “If you can see a dead black boy lie in the street for four and a half hours and that doesn’t make you angry, then you lack humanity,” said Ashley Yates, a Ferguson activist and co-founder of Millennial Activists United, at a rally last October. Evoking humanity is used to express communal anger against police brutality, but also to mobilize those who aren’t acting. Yates explained further:
And at the very core of this is humanity—Black Lives Matter. We matter. We matter. Black lives matter because they are lives. Because we are human. Because we eat. Because we breathe. Because he [Michael Brown] had a dream, because he made rap songs, they may have had cuss words in them. Yeah. He was human. And when we neglect to see that we end up where we are today.
Activists like Yates have also used the claim of humanity to challenge the politics of respectability, a black middle-class ideology that has its origins in the turn-of-the-twentieth century response to black people’s loss of civil and political rights following Reconstruction’s collapse. The politics of respectability is invested in changing the personal behavior and culture of poor and working-class black people, rather than squarely addressing the structural barriers that keep them locked into a perpetual state of marginality.
This appeal to humanity too has deep—though hidden—roots in the history of the black freedom struggle. The eighteenth-century anti-slavery campaign roused the consciousness of nations by pleading to those who kept them and profited from their bondage, “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” The agitation of the anti-lynching campaigns of the first half of the twentieth century highlighted the inhumanness of mob violence against black people. Striking garbage workers fighting for a living wage in Memphis in 1968 carried with them placards proclaiming, “I am a Man.” But with the successful passage of major civil rights legislation—specifically the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act—and the expansion of these laws in subsequent decades, the language of civil rights came to dominate both the ideas and the strategies of leaders and organizations concerned with racial inequality.
With Black Lives Matter, we now have a revival of these historical roots. Its recognition that all black lives deserve humanity, regardless of their gender, class, or sexual orientation, has breathed new life into the legacy of the black freedom struggle. Today’s new—and much larger—movement is also articulating the national struggle for racial justice as a broader one for human rights.
In 1951, the “We Charge Genocide” campaign—which included William Patterson, Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Claudia Jones, and family members of victims of racial violence such as Josephine Grayson and Rosalie McGee—petitioned the United Nations to examine human rights abuses against black Americans. The petitioners sought to frame their claims—that African Americans were being persecuted, denied the right to vote, and “pauperized” because of their race—as a question of both black humanity and as a human rights issue: “[A]bove all we protest this genocide as human beings whose very humanity is denied and mocked.”
The horrific evidence compiled for the petition, culled from stories in black newspapers and accounts collected by civil rights and labor organizations from 1945 to 1951, is eerily similar to the accounts we hear today. We may be more familiar with the evidence that petitioners document in the Jim Crow South, but the incidents recorded outside it are especially revealing. In many pockets of the urban North, the policing of black migrants was merely a parallel to the Jim Crow violence that terrorized them in the South.
For instance, in February 1946 in Freeport, Long Island, a policeman shot and killed two unarmed black men, wounded a third, and arrested a fourth for “disorderly conduct.” The men had objected to being denied service in a café. The Freeport police, in a move that resembles the police’s response to protesters in Ferguson, “threw a cordon around the bus terminal and stationed men with tommy guns and tear gas there, saying that they wanted to ‘prevent a possible uprising of local Negroes.’”
Three months later in Baltimore, police shot and killed Wilbur Bundley. “Nine witnesses stated that he was shot in the back while running,” the petition reports. In July, Lucy Gordy James, a member of a prominent family of “Negro business people in Detroit,” was “beaten severely” by three police officers. “She sued the officers for $10,000 damages, charging illegal arrest, assault, and maltreatment.” And in 1951 in Philadelphia, “forty police officers killed an unarmed 21-year-old Negro youth, Joseph Austin Conway, allegedly being sought for questioning in a robbery. He died in a hail of bullets while seeking to draw fire away from his family and neighbors.” This catalogue of disaster—to quote James Baldwin—is documented in over 200 pages.
In the 1950s, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King also used the language of human rights to internationalize the issue of racial inequality in the United States. During his travels abroad, Malcolm X enlisted the assistance of heads of states in Africa and the Middle East to condemn the United States for their treatment of black Americans. He discovered that by framing the mistreatment of black Americans as an international human rights issue instead of a national civil rights one, “those grievances can then be brought into the United Nations and be discussed by people all over the world.” For him, as long as the discussion was centered on civil rights, “your only allies can be the people in the next community, many of whom are responsible for your grievance.” Malcolm X wanted “to come up with a program that would make our grievances international and make the world see that our problem was no longer a Negro problem or an American problem but a human problem.”
In framing racial discrimination in human rights terms, the Black Lives Matter movement is today picking up the baton of civil rights activists before them. The parents of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis have raised the issue of discriminatory policing with members of the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in Geneva. The parents of Mike Brown along with representatives of organizations in Ferguson and Chicago traveled to Geneva to share information about their cases with the UN Committee Against Torture in November 2014. Brown’s parents submitted a statement to the Committee that read in part, “The killing of Mike Brown and the abandonment of his body in the middle of a neighborhood street is but an example of the utter lack of regard for, and indeed dehumanization of, black lives by law enforcement personnel.” Following its examination of the United States, the Committee Against Torture recommended that it undertake independent and prompt investigations into allegations of police brutality and expressed concerns about racial profiling and the “growing militarization of policing activities.” After it reviewed the human rights record of the United States this May, a review procedure of the UN Human Rights Council recommended strengthening legislation to combat racial discrimination and addressing excessive use of force by the police.
When Anthony Scott saw the video of his brother Walter Scott being shot as he fled a North Charleston police officer, he remarked, “I thought that my brother was gunned down like an animal.” It is a curious thing for black people in the twenty-first century to once again have to claim their humanity. We live in a society where people are more likely to be convicted of animal cruelty than police officers are likely to be charged for the murder of unarmed black, brown, and poor people. But with the Black Lives Matter movement, black America’s struggle for human rights is once again gaining strength. Hopefully this time, we can win the more than century-long campaign that has demanded of our nation simply to see us as human.
Fredrick C. Harris is professor of political science and director of the Center on African-American Politics and Society at Columbia University. He is the author of several books, including The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics. His essays have appeared in numerous publications, including the London Review of Books, the New York Times, and Transition.
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