The Civil-Rights Movement’s Generation Gap

Activist Bree Newsome on bridging the divided perspectives of the young and old.

illustration of activism 1960s vs 2010s
Richie Pope
Editor’s Note: Read The Atlantic’s special coverage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.

“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.

A week before this phone call, my friends and I had been arrested for staging a sit-in at the North Carolina Capitol to protest legislation clearly designed to suppress black voters. In volunteering to be arrested, we’d followed the lead of the reverend, William J. Barber II, who’d been organizing demonstrations at the statehouse in Raleigh for several months. This evening, though, we’d arrived at an impasse. My friends and I ultimately chose to travel to Florida, because we believed in the need for a movement led by young people. After all, it was primarily black and Latino youths who were being targeted and killed by the criminal-justice system.

The tensions between generations of civil-rights activists have centered largely on a debate over tactics. A feature of the modern movement has been an open rejection of “respectability politics”—the notion that black Americans must prove themselves “respectable” to gain equal rights. Iconic images from the 1960s show young people dressed in their finest while police dogs bite them or fire hoses knock them flat. The day before our protest in Raleigh, the reverend reminded us of this tradition and encouraged us to maintain it. But some of my colleagues raised a question: Wasn’t Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated while wearing a suit? The idea that changing our clothes would change our circumstances was troubling. Many pundits suggested that Trayvon had been killed not because of racism but because he’d been wearing a hoodie. And so wearing T‑shirts, jeans, and hoodies to protests became an intentional act of rejecting “respectability,” instead of trying to look wealthy and white.

An element of class conflict in the movement has become more pronounced in recent years. Middle- and upper-class black Americans have arguably benefited the most from civil rights and Black Power. From the late 1960s into the 1990s, black Americans gained access to jobs that had previously been off-limits in government, universities, and the professions. A black political class ascended in cities such as Atlanta, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. At the same time, the War on Drugs, the 1994 crime law, and mass incarceration disproportionately harmed poor blacks.

An early objection to the Black Lives Matter movement was that, unlike the traditional civil-rights organizations, it was “leaderless.” This view reflects a certain sexism, overlooking the many black women who have spearheaded the movement since its inception. But yes, the movement’s leaders have made a deliberate effort to decentralize power. This is in no small part a response to the stark reality that past black leaders—King, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton—were targeted and killed, leaving their movements in turmoil. A report last summer from the FBI’s counterterrorism division alleged the rise of “black identity extremists,” a category previously unheard of. The report was reminiscent of the agency’s cointelpro program that undermined black activists, including King, in the 1960s.

Political movements, by their nature, are messy and nuanced. King, who was in his 30s when he led the civil-rights movement, often found himself pulled between its younger and older factions. Institutions such as the NAACP generally consider the courtroom and the halls of government the most important battlegrounds in the fight for equality, while student movements seek to empower communities with nonviolent direct action. More recently, these grassroots activists have organized fast-food workers to “Fight for $15” as a minimum hourly wage and fostered protests on college campuses to raise adjunct professors’ pay.

Then, as now, getting arrested or jailed or associated with criminality in any fashion, whether in a hoodie or a suit and tie, was bound to upset the political establishment. When Black Lives Matter activists blocked traffic and engaged in other acts of mass civil disobedience, many white liberals and older black activists charged that King wouldn’t have approved of the type of disruption these protests caused. While the likes of King and Rosa Parks are now celebrated for their acts of defiance, their protests were no less controversial at the time, even within the civil-rights movement.

Taking the long view is important. The generations need to converse. The elders who once battled to integrate schools must listen to the young people who are now battling forces that funnel them from classrooms into prisons. The younger generation needs to understand how the modern movement is built upon every black-freedom effort that preceded it. The night my friends and I headed to Florida, we were at an impasse with the reverend, but two years later, when I climbed a 30-foot flagpole on the South Carolina statehouse grounds and removed the Confederate flag, he issued a public statement of support.

In my current work as a community organizer in North Carolina, the other activists and I operate by a principle we refer to as “seven generations.” The concept, which we adapted from the Iroquois Confederacy, means we understand that the work we’re doing has gone on for seven generations and will continue for seven more. The movement lives because of the many people, places, and generations that breathe life into it.

This article appears in the special MLK issue print edition with the headline “The Movement’s Generation Gap.”