Many images that came out of Ferguson, Mo., last month looked like scenes from Birmingham, Ala., in the 1960s: the gun-wielding police officers, the sign-carrying protesters and the chants demanding equal treatment and human dignity. But that’s where the similarities ended.
For all the righteous indignation it inspired, the Ferguson turmoil has become the latest in a series of flash-in-the-pan causes that peter out without inspiring lasting movements for racial justice. As an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi during the ’60s, what I learned was the importance of organizing at the grass-roots and how even small actions at this level can have national impact. That is why I cannot help but notice that many black leaders, in their efforts to drive change, are ignoring some of the great lessons of the Southern Freedom Movement.
For one, the black leaders we most often see in the public eye have become experts at complaining about what the white man does to black people. Al Sharpton and others fill their rhetoric with fury about the white power structure, but ultimately serve messages that are superficial and myopic. To be clear, I am no right-wing ideologue blaming black people for the oppression that has beset them for generations. At 71 years old, I have experienced my share of brutal and dismissive racism. But this one-track approach will not generate change. Perhaps the great lesson of the southern Civil Rights Movement is that as much as it challenged white supremacy, it was the challenges that black people made to one another that truly empowered the movement.
For example, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as a leader in 1955 only after he was challenged in his own church in Montgomery, Ala. People had gathered there to consider extending the successful one-day bus boycott until the city agreed to desegregate its buses. Several ministers raised concerns and gave excuses for why the boycott should end. E.D. Nixon, a leader in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, accused the ministers of cowardice. It was then that the 26-year-old King stood up and proclaimed, “I am not a coward.” The now-embarrassed group agreed to extend the boycott, established the Montgomery Improvement Association, and made King its leader.
The story of E.D. Nixon makes a second point. The most powerful forces of the Civil Rights Movement emerged from the bottom up, not from the top down. But that’s not how it’s happening today. The loudest voices on black issues now have famous names and their own TV shows. They pop in for protests but are strangers to the local people, except for their celebrity.
Leaders in the ’50s and ’60s were inspiring for their ordinariness. For instance, Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper, was no celebrity in 1962 when she attempted to register to vote in Sunflower County, Miss. When she returned home, the plantation owner was waiting for her. He demanded that she promise to make no further attempts to register to vote. Her reply: “I didn’t go down there to register for you; I went down there to register for myself.” He kicked her off the land. She became one of Mississippi’s great black leaders.
Now consider Ferguson. Only 6 percent of eligible black voters participated in the last municipal elections — this in a town that is more than two-thirds black. No wonder the six-person City Council only has one black member and the 53-person police force only has three black officers. Just two generations ago, black Southerners endured arrests and beatings in order to vote. And yet, it seems we’ve already forgotten the immense power of the ballot. With the existence of the Voting Rights Act, low black voter turnout or registration cannot be charged solely to white people, no matter what machinations they use to suppress voters. Black people are not faced with anything like the violence that confronted those seeking voting rights five decades ago. Let’s end the excuses. The people of Ferguson have all the power they need to simply get rid of their unrepresentative government — vote them out. This does not take any great political computation.
The abysmal voting numbers in Ferguson — and in communities like it around the country — are a failure not only of the people, but of black leaders. We see them parachute in and out of Ferguson, Harlem and Sanford, Fla. We see them on TV. We see them in marches. But ultimately, they offer nothing enduring.
Not only that, these leaders — largely Civil Rights veterans — are selfishly hogging the spotlight from a new crop whose fresh energy stands a better chance of driving a sustainable movement. Philip Agnew, executive director of Florida’s young Dream Defenders, an organization that has been organizing sit-ins to protest the Stand Your Ground law, was not allowed to speak during commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. He’s not the only one whose actions command more attention. Today, there are even more aspiring black leaders — of various ages — than I remember in 1961, when I became involved with the sit-in movement as a Howard University student. Among them are William Barber in North Carolina leading Moral Mondays, which protest right-wing policies with acts of civil disobedience; Tennessee activist Ash-Lee Woodard, tackling a range of issues in Appalachia; and Massachusetts-based Maisha Moses who works on the Young People’s Project, an outgrowth of civil rights legend Bob Moses’s Algebra Project. And more young leaders are being groomed, including the young activists brought together by Harry Belafonte as “the Gathering for Justice” and the thousands of mostly young black people involved with Marian Wright Edelman’s Freedom School program. Youth were central to the success of the Southern Freedom Movement, and they are necessary to drive change today.
There are grounds for optimism and these young people, largely invisible and ignored, deserve more attention. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and even Martin Luther King, III (old in his approach, if young in years) deserve less attention. But young people also must seize the reins for change. To do this, organizing is key. They must dig into communities, listen to grass-root voices, and learn from them. The must always stand up for local priorities, instead of deferring to national performances. As Julian Bond once challenged a group of young people, “Pass the torch? Snatch it like we did.”
Charles E. Cobb Jr. is a former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) field secretary and the author of This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement.