Evolving Activism: The Black Freedom Movement

On Feb. 17, Barbara Ransby, a professor of African-American studies at the University of Chicago, spoke about the cultural legacy of the Black Freedom Movement  in Cro’s Nest. The talk, entitled “The Long Black Freedom Movement: from Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter,” focused on the difference in organizational style of ’60s activists compared to present-day social advocates. Commenting on the effectiveness of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s centralized campaign structure, Ransby expressed her view that Americans today dismiss the validity of the grassroots “Black Lives Matter” movement. Specifically, by holding Dr. King as a the ultimate martyr for issues of social justice, she feels the public fails to recognize today’s activists as true standard-bearers for reform.

In opening her talk, Professor Ransby sought to dispel the myth of a “leaderless” Black Lives Matter movement. To the contrary, she portrayed it as “leaderful” movement that channels the voice of Ella Baker more than that of Dr. King. “We see history as a series of great deeds by great men,” Ransby observed. “This narrow, male-centered view persists in historical narratives. To understand the Freedom Movement, and its relation to Black Lives Matter, we must understand Martin Luther King, Jr. from a different perspective.”

Americans have come to regard Dr. King as the dominant force behind the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. He energized activists and, in turn, sustained the movement almost single-handedly. But Ransby, quoting Ella Baker, observed that, “Martin didn’t make the movement. The movement made Martin.”

In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, for instance, Dr. King paid tribute to the movement’s many unsung, foot soldier-activists. “Every time I take a flight, I am always mindful of the many people who make a successful journey possible — the known pilots and the unknown ground crew,” said Dr. King. While accepting the sentiment behind Dr. King’s metaphor, Ransby found it “wholly inadequate.” “Although these activists fought in the trenches and were not covered by the media,” she noted, “they were strategists and intellectuals. They were technicians…They never stood on King’s mountaintop, but they worked in the valleys.”

The decentralized, but effective, leadership structure featuring the movement’s “ground troops” would serve as a model for contemporary civil rights activists. The Black Lives Matter network, operating in a similar spirit, lacks a formal hierarchy with its over 30 chapters organized to ensure responsiveness to the needs of individual communities.

Ransby viewed the socioeconomic composition of Freedom Fighters as a harbinger for the diverse coalitions that activists in the Black Lives Matter Movement seek to cultivate. Black Lives Matter, while allying itself with activist organizations like the Black Youth Project, also collaborates with Latinos and the LGBTQ community. In the ’60s, Fannie Lou Hamer, the daughter of a sharecropper, participated in protests alongside college educated Ruby Doris Smith-Robinson. Anne Braden, a white woman, further sought to redefine cultural expectations of a “Gentile-Southern” under the umbrella of the Black Freedom Movement.

Ransby sees activists in the Black Lives Matter Movement striving to channel the ideas of a so-called “radical King.” Dr. King sought to broaden public awareness of state-sanctioned violence. In his most influential speech opposing the war in Vietnam, Dr. King drew on parallels to violence perpetrated by the U.S. government at home and abroad. America, he orated, could “never be saved so long as it destroy[ed] the deepest hopes of men the world over.” Black Lives Matter activists expand upon Dr. King’s dialogue by protesting against police brutality. As agents of the state, Ransby explained, “police violence reduces our ability to combat street violence. When we dress up state violence, we have little hope of combatting other forms of violence, especially violence embedded in an informal economy that has developed.”

Dr. King, criticizing U.S. actions in Vietnam, further emphasized the war’s deleterious impact on the black poor at home. America, he understood, “would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures in Vietnam continued to draw men.” Ransby felt that, in the modern era, “there exists a nexus between economic inequality and desperation, which is closely connected to police and state violence. Eric Garner, selling “loosies,” participated at the margins of the economy. “To clean up that activity,” Ransby concluded, “he was assaulted and ends up dead.” In South Carolina, Walter Scott “runs from the police because he is afraid that he will have to pay child support. The fear of punishment, because of Scott’s financial situation, led to this violent confrontation.” The Black Lives Matter Movement, by seeking to check police behavior, strives to reform a divisive economic structure used to justify bloodshed.

Millennial activists, while they align with Dr. King ideologically, deviate from his “politics of respectability.” The sexual orientation of Bayard Ruston, a close advisor to Dr. King, kept him in the shadows of the Civil Rights Movement. Jane Stenberg, who worked extensively with Ella Baker, suffered a similar fate. She eventually left the movement, Ransby said, because “she couldn’t find a safe space as a lesbian, within it.” This history of marginalization among earlier activists encouraged the four founders of Black Lives Matter, “two of whom were queer, to have their sexual orientation acknowledged.” As Ransby pointed out, they “did not want to be invisible as a matter of principle.”

The rhetoric of the Black Lives Matter Movement, therefore, also reflects the ideals of Ella Baker. Baker rejected Dr. King’s “leadership from the pulpit” theory and instead sought to forge a coalition representative of the U.S. population. In meetings, Ransby lectured, Baker “sought to engage those who were not speaking, or who felt silenced, because all had the capacity for leadership.”

The importance of the Black Lives Matter movment, Ransby concluded, stems from its role as “a catalyst for other movements.” The movement’s multi-issue focus encourages activists to “realize that they have overlapping interests other communities. An inclusive environment is one important means for people to realize that the mutilation of black bodies is detrimental for everyone.” •