Whether through Facebook, Tumblr or that one African-American Studies class you took last semester, many of you have learned by now that Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy is about more than his dream where “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” Although the actual narrative of the Civil Rights Movement has been co-opted by eliding the more militant parts of the movement, the real story of King persists through oral histories and the counter-storytelling of black activist spaces.
King was well aware of the need to dismantle systems perpetuating economic injustice, militarism and white supremacy on the path to black liberation. Though he was a man whose actions and tendencies may have sometimes compromised the success of the movement, he nonetheless maintained a radical vision that was mostly at odds with the country that now claims to honor him with a national holiday.
Honoring King must go beyond a simple acknowledgement of his legacy, even if that acknowledgement highlights the lesser-known and more radical aspects of that legacy. Actions like the #ReclaimMLK protests around the country yesterday (which linked King’s confrontational politics to the #BlackLivesMatter movement and current struggles for black liberation) are a better example of translating knowledge into meaningful action.
However, as we clamor to join the movement in the charged moments after a non-indictment or another black death, we often forget that the reasons behind our actions can, and will, affect the value and impact of our work. These events, rather than acting as catalysts for sustained organizing, frequently allow people to feel like they’ve contributed to the movement without making a long-term commitment. Often, actions following moments like Ferguson are driven by a feeling of “having to” respond, rather than by a broader commitment to addressing the systemic issue that the incident reveals. Responses with a lack of purpose are perhaps more harmful than inaction.
How we execute these events is just as important as why; and when carried out uncritically, they can perpetuate the oppressive systems we’re trying to subvert. We have seen people center their attempts at activism on their own privileged experiences, leading to the alienation of those more marginalized in our society. At times, this means placing oneself at the center of a narrative in a way that excludes others. This selfish brand of organizing reinforces elitism and patriarchy and often prevents real solidarity. If we cannot build a movement collectively, we cannot win.
We must be intentional in every aspect of our organizing, and root it in active practices of anti-racism, anti-sexism and anti-elitism. We should support grassroots organizing efforts that empower communities to take their lives into their own hands. We should amplify their stories rather than our own. That is how we build a movement.
Even in the Civil Rights Movement, there were deep internal tensions about how best to organize. The Ella Bakers and the Bob Moseses committed themselves to a vision of freedom that valued radical democracy over immediate gains. People like King, despite valuing the grassroots organizing that drove the movement, fell into a model of top-down charismatic leadership that devalued bottom-up organizing. So while it’s true that King had a radical vision for society, he didn’t always work to realize that vision within the movement. He had a mixed track record in terms of cultivating the leadership of women and young people in the movement. Although he was aware of how his celebrity status could stifle the development of those around him, he failed to rectify this.
Ultimately, we believe in our communities’ ability to create equitable spaces within movements for justice. The action taken both in Ferguson and across the country in recent months has been breathtaking in its ability to reclaim narratives around blackness and power in America, both visually and in terms of sheer numbers. We don’t have all the answers about what meaningful action can look like on this campus. But we are hopeful that Yale can join in this historical moment with action that advances the cause of justice in its practice, as well as its principle.
Alexandra Barlowe and Eshe Sherley, sophomore in Branford College and junior in Morse College, are board members of the Black Student Alliance at Yale. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.