August 28 holds significant meaning for many African Americans. This year, it marked the 65th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black boy who was lynched by two white men near Money, Mississippi. Till’s death served as one of the catalysts for the civil-rights movement, and organizers of the 1963 March on Washington—one of the largest mass demonstrations of the 20th century—selected this date for their gathering. This year was also the 57th anniversary of that march. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the National Action Network organized thousands of people wearing masks to fill the Mall last Friday and commemorate the march’s legacy—and assert a new commitment to fighting injustice. It is not a coincidence that the Movement for Black Lives—a consortium of more than 50 Black-led organizations, including the Black Lives Matter Global Network—also hosted its virtual Black National Convention that Friday evening, where it unveiled its multipronged political agenda on matters of police brutality and beyond.
The momentum for cultural and political change stemming from the reemergence of Black Lives Matter demonstrations this summer has been extraordinary. Throughout communities across the country, portraits of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are wheat-pasted on building walls. Signs that read black lives matter are posted in residential and storefront windows, and the words have been painted onto city streets. Statues that venerate racists, segregationists, and Confederates have come tumbling down. Brands and corporations have rushed to acknowledge systemic racism, ranging between strong and lukewarm commitments to addressing structural inequities. The Minneapolis City Council unanimously voted to dismantle its police department. And school districts in Oakland, California, and Madison, Wisconsin, announced plans to terminate their police contracts. But as the end of summer approaches, will this transformative energy last or languish?
Since the height of the protests in June, there’s been an absence of a meaningful nationwide embrace of police reforms. That month, President Donald Trump signed an executive order calling for the creation of a national database on police use of force, yet the measure fails to address broader issues related to policing. And while the aftermath of the Jacob Blake shooting by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, may provide renewed pressure on state legislators to act, there’s no denying that the largest social movement of the 21st century has to enter a new chapter.
To that end, at Friday night’s convention, the Movement for Black Lives presented a robust 2020 platform, connecting the dots among issues of policing, reproductive justice, housing, climate change, immigration, and disabled and trans rights. In addition to outlining demands to “end the war on Black people,” the platform urges the passage of the Breathe Act, federal legislation that would ensure the closure of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities, defund police departments, and reestablish social programs for the formerly incarcerated. The platform also calls for land reparations for Indigenous communities and Black farmers, electoral justice via the passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, and the advocacy and protection of trans people. The convention was an energetic capstone to a summer of victories both significant and modest.
Still, direct action is never the primary component of a movement’s longevity; it is only a piece that works in concert with a multitude of efforts. Movements frequently face setbacks and fierce resistance, and some even wait decades to capture the national imagination. “When the cameras turn off, when there’s not as much attention to the issues in mass media or social media, we think that the movement activity has somehow ended,” Allen Kwabena Frimpong, a co-founder of the AdAstra Collective, an organization that supports and studies social movements, said in a recent interview. “But it hasn’t. It’s that what is required of us has shifted ... in this phase of the cycle. It’s a time to build strategy.”
When Black Lives Matter protests first captured the nation’s attention and spread across American cities in the late summer of 2014, three high-profile police killings of Black people had occurred: John Crawford III in Ohio, Eric Garner in New York, and Michael Brown in Missouri. It was 18-year-old Brown’s shooting death by an officer in Ferguson that marked a tipping point in the movement: The nation saw several weeks of uprisings and sustained protests demanding policing reform and accountability. That energy was sustained in Chicago, New York, Baton Rouge, Dallas, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Oakland, St. Louis, and others until 2016.
The street protests subsided with the advent of Trump’s presidency, but this did not mean that activism and organizing weren’t happening behind the scenes. The networks created by those protests nurtured the infrastructure necessary to seed engagement today. The Movement for Black Lives released a policy platform in 2016, pivoting toward increased influence in electoral politics, and advocating for economic justice, investment in education and health care, and reparations. And activists working in Ferguson launched Campaign Zero, a data-driven resource that drew attention to police-union contracts that make it impossible to discipline, investigate, or fire officers for repeated charges of misconduct. Organizers from these groups, along with those from the Black Lives Matter Global Network, have maintained a clarity of focus for years.
And it shows: In 2016, just 43 percent of Americans supported the Black Lives Matter movement. Four years later, the needle has moved significantly. A majority of Americans—and more than half of white people—support the protests as well as major reform in policing. Defunding police departments has been a long-held position by activists working toward outright abolition and the transformation of norms for enforcing public safety. In this moment, ideas that were once deemed too radical have meaningfully entered the mainstream discourse.
Perhaps the closest analogue for this present American moment is 1965, in Selma, Alabama—where protests led to a swift federal legislative response. After years of grassroots efforts and organizing to challenge local voting laws that barred Black Americans from the ballot box, national civil-rights leaders from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee started to align their efforts with Alabama activists. But it was the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson—a veteran and church deacon who was shot by a state trooper during a nighttime march on February 18—that accelerated the push for federal intervention. That’s when the idea to march 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery was born. (At one point, organizers considered carrying Jackson’s casket to the steps of the capitol to lay at the feet of Governor George Wallace.)
On March 7, 1965, known as Bloody Sunday, the nation witnessed the totalitarian brutality of the American South on live TV when state troopers advanced on some 600 protesters attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Then-25-year-old John Lewis, the head of SNCC, was severely beaten and suffered a skull fracture; the troopers tear-gassed and battered other protesters on the bridge. From Atlanta, the head of the SCLC, Martin Luther King Jr., urged people from other states to come to Selma in solidarity, and by March 9, hundreds had answered the call. They attempted to cross the bridge again to march to Montgomery, but turned back to avoid another confrontation with the troopers. The strategy was employed to dramatize the unequal application of the law and to affirm the peaceful disobedience of this enterprise. Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., as protests in support of the Alabama campaign went on outside the White House, a small group of young people staged a sit-in for almost seven hours—first in a main-floor corridor and later in the East Wing—after surreptitiously gaining entry through one of the building’s public guided tours.
Activists, bolstered by the national attention to the crisis in Selma, saw the swift materialization of those efforts at the federal level. On March 15, addressing a joint session of Congress, President Lyndon Johnson introduced voting-rights legislation. “Their cause must be our cause too,” Johnson said. “Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.” With the support of federal courts, activists and allies set out again for Montgomery, leaving Selma on March 21 and arriving at the capitol on March 25. That final Selma-to-Montgomery march, which culminated with 25,000 participants, was the embodiment of a victory soon to come: On August 6, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
The civil-rights movement was ultimately successful, yet it was also beset by ruthless obstruction. Prior to 1965, Selma activists, along with SNCC, orchestrated voter-registration efforts and sit-ins to protest segregation, and were met with fierce resistance from state and local authorities in concert with the White Citizens’ Council and the Ku Klux Klan. A 1964 court injunction forbidding gatherings of three or more people for the cause of civil rights also stymied momentum. It’s clear that social movements are endemic to American life: The constant presence of protests and activism has shaped culture and policy over the past 60 years. Yet the anticipation of delays and deterrence by oppositional forces is built into movement work. Key players have to continuously adapt their strategies and challenge resistance by powerful actors to achieve any movement’s goals.
Today, the Black Lives Matter movement is a decentralized, leaderful, interdependent network of organizations and individuals, channeling its resources toward building a society where Black people can flourish. Friday’s march and convention presented a myriad of committed activists working twin threads of direct-action protests and longer-term plans to dramatize the urgency of this crisis. Rooted in Black feminist thought, the convention demonstrated the capaciousness of this movement and highlighted efforts from large and small communities nationwide. Success for these activists and allies ranges from closing down a notorious jail to electing someone to Congress. As long as these efforts face a hostile Trump administration, though, the movement is likely to encounter many setbacks. Still, its holistic agenda—that all (cis/trans/queer/disabled) Black lives matter—is why the movement will last.
“Every Black person in the United States is gonna stand up,” Jacob Blake Sr., the father of Jacob Blake, told the crowd at Friday’s march. “We’re gonna hold court today. We’re gonna hold court on systematic racism … Guilty. Racism against all of us.” Widespread multicity street protests in the name of Blake and others may once again claim nationwide consciousness. But the unseen, deliberative work of activism will persist whether the cameras are on or off.
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