But the question is always this, at least when we talk about Black movements — relevant to whom? For what purpose? Where is the strategy other than demanding to stay alive, and then going into electoral politics as a moderate to progressive Democrat?
“Black Lives Matter has cast a strobe-light on contemporary myths of racial progress, arguing correctly that the criminal justice system represents a gateway to a panoramic system of racial and class and gender and sexuality oppression.”
The Black Lives Matter policy agenda represents one of the most important agenda setting documents collectively produced by black activists in a generation. The proposals, authored by over fifty different civil rights organizations, offers a panoramic narrative, diagnosis, and political alternatives to the intricacies of structural racism, state-sanctioned violence, and the institutional exploitation of black bodies across the nation.
“A Vision For Black Lives” builds on, expands, and goes beyond policy agendas promoted by a range of civil rights and Black Power era groups, including the Black Panthers, Nation of Islam, NAACP, SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), CORE, Malcolm X’s Organization of Afro-American Unity, and Martin Luther King Jr’s SCLC. In its poignant urging of the United States to “end the war on black people,” the document is reminiscent of the “Gary Agenda,” the historic 1972 document that emanated from the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana.
That meeting of over 8,000 black delegates from across black America’s political and ideological spectrum proved to be a watershed event, albeit one that was hamstrung by an inability to translate grassroots insurgency into tangible political power, accountability, and resources. Gary, like the Black Power Conferences from the late 1960s and the African Liberation Day and Sixth Pan-African Congress of the 1970s, sought to modernize the black convention movements that could be traced back to the Reconstruction era, where black activists organized for political power in slavery’s aftermath.
By the early 20th century efforts like the “Niagara Movement” faltered due to a lack of resources and political infighting. For a time, Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association cast a shadow large enough to encompass the complexity of black life, uniting economic strivers with revolutionary activists in developing a black agenda broad enough to attract millions of black people across several continents.
Garvey’s decline fractured aspects of black political life, but not dreams for a cohesive vision, plan, and strategy for black liberation, a cause taken up during the Depression and Second World War by a variety of groups including the Southern Negro Youth Congress, National Negro Labor Congress, The Nation of Islam, the Civil Rights Congress, and the Council of African Affairs. The NAACP’s membership reached almost a half-million by 1946, the closest it would ever come to mass membership in scale. Black political leaders pushed an agenda to the left of the New Deal creating space for the global popularity of Paul Robeson, the political resurrection of W.E.B. Du Bois, and the insider status of Mary McLeod Bethune and Ralph Bunche.
Organizers like Ella Baker in New York City and Septima Clarke in South Carolina, worked the lower frequencies of black life, working at the margins of the black quotidian: the ordinary black folk from New York to South Carolina whose dreams remained disarmingly pragmatic ones focused preserving hope and dignity.
The Black Lives Matter Movement is rooted in this wider Black Freedom Struggle, one whose two dominant branches are reflected in the Civil Rights and Black Power era. BLM activists’ successful adoption of non-violence is rooted in the civil rights era even as their unapologetic focus on structural racism, community control, and political self-determination reflects the Black Power era’s radical politics. Surprisingly, so does the movement’s focus on intersectionality. Popularly remembered as deeply masculinist, unapologetically sexist, and homophobic, the Black Power era proved to be more complicated than such simple generalizations indicate. Despite the movement’s many political and ideological blinders, black women, queer activists, and others on the margins of African American life consciously shaped an expansive Black Power politics.
The Third World Women’s Alliance articulated a vision of radical black feminism, socialism, and Black Power militancy that made it a visionary example of cutting edge social justice movements. The Combahee River Collective gave voice to radical black lesbian feminists whose politics went to the far left of the more mainstream National Black Feminist Organization. In many ways both of these organizations reflected the black radical feminist politics revealed in Toni Cade Bambara’s groundbreaking 1970 anthology, The Black Woman, an intellectual and political intervention that ushered in Black Women’s Studies and helped give attention to the works of Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, Gloria Hull, and many others.
BLM activists have taken some of the best aspects of these two generations of the Black Radical Tradition and linked it with more recent efforts to promote reparations (especially by grassroots a organization like N’COBRA, although reparations go back to the formerly enslaved activist Callie House as the historian Mary Frances Berry teaches us); divestment from domestic and global racial exploitation which Jesse Jackson, especially in 1984, promoted as a hallmark of his presidential campaign; the pursuit of independent black political power that had been advocated in the post Gary era by a series of organizations including the National Black United Front, the National Black Independent Political Party, and the Black Radical Congress; the movement for economic justice that has been promoted by a spectrum of grassroots labor, community, church, and secular activists, including black nationalists in communities such as St. Petersburg, Florida, who famously booed candidate Obama in 2008 by chanting and holding signs, “What About the Black Community Obama?”
Black Lives Matter has cast a strobe-light on contemporary myths of racial progress, arguing correctly that the criminal justice system represents a gateway to a panoramic system of racial and class and gender and sexuality oppression. This intervention, while important, is incomplete without an acknowledgment of the way in which the rise of mass incarceration is connected to systems of racial segregation, voting rights denial, state-sanctioned violence and exploitation of black bodies, all while criminalizing and decimating the very communities that remain largely under assault even in the Age of Obama.
The Age of Ferguson, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Black Lives Matter has shattered conventional civil rights narratives, ones that begin with Rosa Parks, continue with King’s Dream, and sought to end with Barack Obama’s election. This version of history as a bedtime story, complete with heroic individual blacks, stalwart white allies, and the thanks of a grateful nation has only one glaring problem.
It’s a lie.
The Civil Rights era heroic period experienced pervasive anti-black violence that only increased during the Black Power era and its aftermath. What is now universally acknowledged as a moral and political good—complete with a multiracial cast of characters—was demonized in word and deed by the larger society, a denigration that became inscribed in a series of intricate anti-black legal, legislative, and policy challenges that have utterly decimated some of the gains of the era, especially for the black poor.
“A Movement For Black Lives” is essential precisely because it helps to expose what is at the root of our national amnesia regarding slavery and anti-black racism-white supremacy and its relationship to conceptions of citizenship, the rule of law, democracy, and justice. In its passionate repudiation of the political status quo and elevating the lives of the black community’s most vulnerable residents—the poor, young, elderly, trans, LGBT, mentally ill, incarcerated, ex-offenders—the BLM has produced a watershed document that once again illustrates why the black freedom struggle has always been on the cutting edge of movements for radical democracy: we have no choice.
Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Professor of History at The University of Texas. He is the award-winning author of several books, including Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama, and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter @PenielJoseph.
Black Lives Matter Profiles: Remembering the Joyful Spirit of Malcolm Ferguson, Killed After Filing a Lawsuit Against the NYPD
Even before Michael Brown was gunned down in Ferguson, Missouri, the name Ferguson was analogous to police violence and murder. On March 1, 2000, the unarmed Malcolm Ferguson was gunned down blocks from his home in the Bronx.
“Malcolm was my biggest baby,” laughs Malcolm’s mother, Juanita Young, who is a parent to four other children.
Malcolm was born on Oct. 31, 1976, in the Bronx. “He was a loving, happy-go-lucky little boy,” Young explains. He trusted his loved ones, and Young giggles as she tells of a time Malcolm was convinced by his brother that he was Superman. He then attempted to fly out the window. Young recalls when Malcolm discovered Santa Claus was his mother, and instead of crying, he laughed and was happy all the same. He loved his mother.
“He was always worried about me because I’m legally blind. He was very close to his sisters and brothers because his father died when they were young,” Young says.
Malcolm was Young’s second to oldest son—her oldest, James, was 11 months older than Malcolm. Malcolm and his brother developed a strong relationship, but it was Malcolm who took on the leading role of big brother and acted like a father to his three younger siblings when their own father was not around. He went to great lengths to take care of his mother as well.
Like many boys, Malcolm loved to play basketball and liked to ride his bike, exploring different areas of the Bronx, all while protecting his family.
“We would tease him because he didn’t go with lots of girls. He would say that if anyone would do anything to his sister, he would be so defensive. So, he didn’t want to just go with any girl,” says Young.
With a kind-hearted and devoted character, Malcolm grew up with lots of friends and felt pressure from his peers to have more name-brand things. Like many of his peers, he decided to sell drugs for some extra money. He ended up being arrested and serving eight months in prison for drug-related offenses when he was 17 years old. It was in prison where Malcolm finished his high school degree.
Malcolm was so negatively affected by his time incarcerated that he vowed never to return to prison. “He would lay at the corner of my bed and tell me the different horror stories and said, ‘I don’t [ever], ever want to go through that again,’” Young recalls.
Malcolm, then only a teenager, and Young spoke every day while he was incarcerated. Young had a miscarriage while Malcolm was locked up, and she remembers how guilty Malcolm felt. He felt, as the protector, that had he been home, perhaps the baby would have been born. Malcolm did everything in his power to ensure the safety, security and well-being of his beloved family—of his cherished mother.
“There is so much now that I do that I wouldn’t have to do if he were alive. If I would go to the laundry, he would go. He would ask me, ‘Ma, wait until I come back.’ Because of my blindness, he really protected me. There were so many times I had been beat up or whatever, and Malcolm felt the need to protect me,” Young explains.
One time, Young was standing outside of her building when someone asked her for directions, and as Young began to search through her purse, Malcolm was at the window, banging, urging the passerby to ask someone else, out of a fear that she could be robbed. He would leave no opportunity for anyone to take advantage of his mother.
It was not just Young and her other children Malcolm sought to protect. “Malcolm wanted to be a paralegal to help people after what he witnessed in prison. He felt he wanted to help people who were incarcerated,” Young says.
Upon leaving prison, Malcolm took an honest job at a car wash, so that he could make money as he pursued a career as a paralegal. His mother was content and knew that his brief stint in illegal pursuits was done.
“It was better than him asking me for quarters,” Young jokes, “I used to go to Atlantic City with my friends. He always would say, ‘Mom, do you have quarters around here?’ ”
Like many formerly convicted people, Malcolm was constantly harassed and profiled by the police after his time in prison. The young, 6-foot-1 Black man was continually harassed by the NYPD in the Bronx despite no involvement with crime or any illegal activity.
“Every time the cops arrested him, the judge would let him go because he wasn’t doing anything. The judge wouldn’t even buy it,” Young says.
One time, the police arrested Malcolm and instead of properly placing the handcuffs around his wrists, the police aggressively placed them over his thumb. His thumb was so injured that Malcolm had to be taken to emergency services. In response to the violent act, Malcolm decided to take legal action against the NYPD for his injuries in police care. He was still involved in the lawsuit when he was killed. After the lawsuit began, the police harassment increased.
“He still kept coming home and telling me the cops were bothering him. He couldn’t go nowhere without the cops stopping him,” Young explains.
When 23-year-old Amadou Diallo was shot and killed by the NYPD in the Bronx in February 1999 (also unarmed), Malcolm was angered and disturbed, like many in New York. He joined in the massive rallies in 2000 when Diallo’s killers were acquitted.
“He saw how the cops treated him and his friends. He knew what happened to Amadou was not right,” explains Young.
That day, Young was alerted by a friend to turn on the TV and was subsequently told that Malcolm would not be coming home.
“I saw [the police] dragging [Malcolm] on the ground arresting him [for peacefully protesting],” Young says.
Then the police started to come after Young. They began pressing seemingly ridiculous charges against her (one such charge was walking a dog without a leash). Young insists that the police would do anything to get her away from her apartment.
On March 1, 2000, about a year after Diallo’s death, just several days after the acquittal, Young was approached in her home by a police officer who told her that Malcolm, her loving son, her protector, was found dead in the hallway of her building. (Young would later find out that Malcolm had been killed, shot in the head, in the streets.) The shock sent Young into respiratory arrest, and she ended up having to go to the emergency room that same night.
Young claims that the police had been threatening Malcolm because of the legal action he was taking against the NYPD for their brutal arrests. Malcolm was unarmed and was not involved in any illegal activity. He did not attack a police officer, nor did he try and resist arrest, as he was doing nothing wrong to warrant arrest. Malcolm, presumably on his way home from work, was approached by Officer Louis Rivera, a plainclothes officer, and then shot in the street. Witnesses attest to this story, although the police claim Malcolm was shot in an apartment building while selling drugs, and then was shot in a struggle between himself and Officer Rivera. There were no drugs found on Malcolm.
Malcolm is remembered as a brother to James, Saran, Buddy and D’Nai. He was an adoring son to his mother, who has worked nonstop since 2000 on his behalf to fight for greater police accountability and to end violence rooted in racism at the hands of the police. Malcolm himself had hoped to work with the legal system to advocate for those most brutalized by the system. Instead, his life was cut tragically short.
The police officer who murdered Malcolm still is a police officer. Young continues to fight on Malcolm’s behalf.
“I think about what he would be like today. What joy he would have brought me,” Young says.
Tess Raser, originally from Chicago, is a teacher in Brooklyn and an active member of the growing Black Lives Matter movement. She works with various groups, including We the People and the Stop Mass Incarceration Network.