“This isn’t a King–Stokely situation.”
The reverend’s voice on the telephone was deep and deliberate. He was trying to dissuade us from heading to the Florida statehouse, where a massive sit-in had been organized by young activists protesting the murder of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman. The demonstrators, with their zeal and style—their use of social media, their graphics and videos, their hoodies—appealed to our North Carolina group of politically committed African Americans. I was 28, and we felt that the older, more established civil-rights organizations weren’t showing enough urgency in the current moment. We had packed our bags, ready to drive south, but the reverend had phoned at the last minute and pressed us not to go. Now we sat huddled around the phone at my friend’s kitchen table.
“This is absolutely a King–Stokely situation!” my friend’s father said sharply, from a few feet away. He and the reverend were alluding to a turning point in the late 1960s, when Stokely Carmichael, the young leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, issued a philosophical—and generational—challenge to Martin Luther King Jr.’s belief in nonviolence as a tactic and in racial integration as the paramount goal; out of this conflict, the Black Power movement was born. A seasoned activist, my friend’s father wanted us to understand that our disagreement with the reverend reflected a long history of intergenerational tensions among civil-rights advocates. This was in July 2013; four-plus years after the election of the first black president, the national mood had shifted. Instead of debating the notion of a “post-racial America,” we were grappling with the aftermath of a modern-day lynching. Two generations earlier, in 1955, a black teenager from Chicago named Emmett Till had been lynched while visiting relatives in Mississippi, a case that shocked the world and energized the burgeoning civil-rights movement. Trayvon’s murder would also spark a movement, though all we knew at the time was that this moment mattered.