Three years after BLM launched a nationwide uprising against police violence, what’s next for the movement? In this special section, a leading African American historian explores how the group is forging a powerful new form of civil rights activism. Plus: How police in 1970s Detroit unleashed an undercover execution squad, and the modern-day rise of “warrior policing.”
Even in the splintered and often fractious world of social justice movements, Black Lives Matter doesn’t fit easily into existing categories. Few grassroots uprisings have done as much, in such a short period of time, to focus attention on long-neglected issues of racial justice, gender, and economic inequality. Yet so far, BLM has not followed up on its initial victories by building the kind of lasting, hierarchical organizations that grew out of the civil rights movement; nor has it dedicated itself to a single, easily identifiable goal, like enacting the Voting Rights Act. How are we to make sense of organizers who themselves remain so loosely organized? And if Black Lives Matter isn’t devoting itself primarily to bringing about substantive legal and legislative change, then how can it hope to transform its resistance into lasting and meaningful gains in human rights?
Such questions are understandable, given the course that BLM activists are charting for their organization. But comparing the group to the civil rights movement betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of both its importance and its broader agenda. BLM was certainly inspired, in no small measure, by the nonviolent civil disobedience that was so effective during the civil rights era. But its unique contribution comes from the way it has married those grassroots tactics to the radical structural critique of institutional racism and economic injustice developed by the Black Power movement. In so doing, it has issued a clarion call to an entire generation of social justice activists, placing the fledgling movement on the cutting edge of civil rights activism for the twenty-first century.
Comparing BLM to the Black Power movement, of course, is not without pitfalls. Many critics have been quick to dismiss BLM for trafficking in the angry polemics exemplified by groups like the Black Panthers. Indeed, Black Power is often viewed as the evil twin of the civil rights movement, one that undermined the heroism of more mainstream leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. In the popular imagination, Black Power exists as a kind of fever dream, populated by gun-toting Black Panthers, student militants who took over university campuses, Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, and Malcolm X’s insistence that black Americans would be justified in resorting to violence to defend themselves from the violence of entrenched racism.
The reality is richer—and far more resonant to our current moment. The Black Power movement’s greatest achievement was turning racial consciousness into a weapon that could be used to promote institutional change. Transforming “Negroes” into proud black people wasn’t a rhetorical flourish—it was an essential and strategic move that helped bring about a corresponding transformation across a broad spectrum of racial identity.
Black Power inspired sweeping changes in American literature, art, and poetry; created a new wave of black scholarship in higher education; and helped elect two generations of black officials at every level of government. Without the consciousness-raising of the Black Power movement, there would likely be no King holiday or Black History Month, no movements to end mass incarceration or apartheid, no free breakfasts in public schools (an outgrowth of hot-meal programs launched by the Black Panthers), no black studies programs at Harvard and other major universities, no Do the Right Thing or Lemonade, no Barack Obama.
Like BLM, which was born in the wake of widespread incidents of police brutality, Black Power came of age in the violent racial landscape confronted by civil rights activists. If Martin Luther King presented himself as a shield capable of defending the black community from the evils of racial segregation, Malcolm X entered the world stage as a sword capable of defeating a Jim Crow system that excluded and brutalized black Americans. “Message to the Grassroots,” Malcolm’s historic speech in Detroit in November 1963, offered a blueprint for a black revolution, one sophisticated enough to recognize white supremacy as a national issue, rather than a regional concern, and bold enough to deploy radical strategies—including armed self-defense and political self-determination—to defeat it.