The bitter irony is that there are a lot of people today attacking, or at least being skeptical of, Black Lives Matter, who nevertheless view the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s with great respect and even reverence. This is because it is very easy and safe to approve of something that happened a long time ago and has received the stamp of approval from history. It’s easy when you didn’t have to be there and weren’t forced to make hard decisions, to examine yourself and your society in uncomfortable ways. It’s easy to look back and say, “Wow, they were so brave. What a good fight that was.”
So, here’s a mental game for those people: try replacing “Black Lives Matters” with “The Civil Rights Movement” every time it comes up in your day-to-day life. Because BLM IS the Civil Rights Movement, which is not something that HAPPENED long ago but it something that is continuously happening in American society, evolving and adapting to meet a changing world. If you reject, mock, or ironically distance yourself from this struggle, you are showing the world how you would have reacted in the 1960s. That’s the stuff you’re made of. That’s how you respond in a crisis when your fellow Americans ask for your help.
But it’s different, you say. The Civil Rights Movement was about ending Jim Crow, ending legal segregation. And it succeeded. BLM is just about criticizing police!
To which I would respond, Cool. I see your view of history. You probably also believe that George Washington cut down the cherry tree and Daniel Boone killed a bear when he was only three and Columbus discovered America. You like fairy-tale history. Because, if you studied real history, you would know that the Civil Rights Movement was about a lot of more than ending legal segregation. It was about creating full legal, educational and economic equality for black Americans through every other strata of society. The initial, tangible, urgent goal might have been ending Jim Crow, but that was a gate that needed to be opened in order to get to the next place. Just as the initial, tangible, urgent goal of BLM is to end racist police violence.
Does the term “racist police violence” get your hackles up? Why? Do you deny that you witness racist police violence when you watch old films of cops spraying Civil Rights activists with water cannons, unleashing dogs on them, beating them with batons? Do you think this kind of thing was confined to that easily vilified region, “The South?” Do you really? If you’re a Northerner, have you studied the history of your own region? Surely no reasonable person denies that racist police violence was endemic in the 60s.
And this brings me to the part that mystifies me the most. When is it that you think institutionalized racism came to an end? Because the mainstream American story of race seems to be something like this: Slavery happened. Slavery was bad. Slavery ended. Then there was Jim Crow. That was BAD. Then that ended. Now, black people are full and equal citizens and need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and put race behind them. What the fuck is this story? Do you think the Civil Rights Movement was an unqualified success? You remember that Dr. King was fucking murdered, right? Are you really prepared to make the case that the deep-rooted pernicious racism in American society that infiltrates our schools, our courts, our streets – and which we ALL ADMIT did so in the RECENT PAST – was ended in, what, the late 60s? Are you prepared to explain the mechanism by which it ended? Please, lay it out for me. I’m all ears.
Because, obviously, the 70s were great for black people. The Reagan/crack-cocaine 80s were a walk in the park. The Clinton/three-strikes 90s were a veritable utopia. And the new millennium, we can see, is pretty much perfect.Seriously … what is with this stupid narrative?
So let’s try for a moment to assume that maybe full equality for black Americans has not been achieved. (If you think it has, I don’t know what to say to you.) If full equality has not been achieved, then the goals and agendas of the Civil Rights Movement are still active, alive and relevant. But it wouldn’t look like it did in the 60s, would it? The world has changed. It would be led by young black Americans, engaged in the modern world, with new philosophies and tactics – while still existing in the continuum of the historical movement. BLM is the Civil Rights Movement NOW. And the way YOU react to it is your moment in history.
We see those people in the Civil Rights documentaries. Not all of them were flaming bigots. Some were just uncomfortable. They maybe couldn’t fully articulate why. They are the people who simply don’t like to see the status quo disrupted, who don’t like to feel implicated or complicit in a racist society, and who just maybe don’t like to have their privilege threatened (as if extending that privilege to others is actually a threat). Some of them may have said, “Well, the war to destroy slavery was noble and just. But this is too much, too fast. And besides, they’re fighting the police. They police are our protectors. So surely I can’t support this movement.”
Does that sound familiar? Because there are people today looking at the Civil Rights era through a golden haze but refusing to realize that WE ARE STILL IN IT. Who would you have been back then? What would you have done? Which side would you be on? These are not theoretical questions: they are being answered right now. And you and I will be judged by history in the same way people in the 60s are judged today. We all stand in the judgment right now. Take a deep breath. Look around. Your fellow Americans, black, proud, and sick of this shit, are asking for your help.
Which side are you on?