I was fortunate enough to be born in Birmingham, Alabama. Although some people are ashamed to be from there, and think only about Confederate flags, bad health, and poverty, I think about the rich history of Black resistance and organizing that took place there. The civil rights movement marked a time when Black activists in the U.S. took rigorous steps to cement victories that would inspire activists for generations. Theircourage changed the entire world and we are forever indebted to them.
This is why it pains me to no end to witness the appropriation of this legacy for the gain of nonprofits, self-styled activists, and for political gain. It seems any self pronounced watershed moment automatically looks for how to hijack the work of the tireless organizers that came before us. These thieves take the same ideas and recycle them, but not before stripping them of any real radical threats against capitalism, racism, and sexism that promote inequality among us. I write this as I prepare to witness what I am sure will be the spectacle of the 50th anniversary of the March On Washington. Late into the President’s second term he gave an invigorating speech at the Martin Luther King memorial dedication saying:
…we need more than ever to take heed of Dr. King’s teachings. He calls on us to stand in the other person’s shoes; to see through their eyes; to understand their pain. He tells us that we have a duty to fight against poverty, even if we are well off; to care about the child in the decrepit school even if our own children are doing fine; to show compassion toward the immigrant family, with the knowledge that most of us are only a few generations removed from similar hardships.
I expect his words will similarly be far removed from his actions during this anniversary and henceforth afterwards. The Obama administration’s unwarranted drone strikes, problematic ‘Race To The Top’ program, and 1.7 million deportations illustrate that there is very little true effort behind the Commander in Chief’s choice words.
But it’s not just Obama. I’ve also watched the mainstream immigrants rights movement, labor, and what many dub “Gay Inc,” be quick to appropriate from the civil rights movement. The blog titled the “New Civil Rights Movement” is quite perfect at doing what I’m describing through their name (among other things). The self described LGBT-focused news site decided after the Prop 8 decision, like many others did, that marriage equality and LGBT issues were the “new civil rights movement”. This language insinuates that the old civil rights movement concluded (as if it were a play) while borrowing from the mental imagery that arises when people hear the words. Civil Rights movements happened before the actions that took place during the Jim Crow era and will continue to take place. The one that influenced so many of us though has come to be known as ‘TheCivil Rights Movement’ because of the shockwaves it sent throughout the world. It seems easy enough to just use this history to further causes today. I have witnessed this up close within the immigrant rights movement, meeting the frontrunners of this hijack-tivism personally. They are ever ready to use the imagery of yesterday’s martyrs as if they’re ducking high velocity water hoses on the way to their New Organizing Institute trainings. The level of brutality that activists faced then was not necessarily unprecedented in history, but it was certainly much worse than our generation has it. The comparisons thatappropriators always seek out are often far reaching and they sometimes leave a bitter taste in the mouth of an aging generation of Black radicals.
It’s easy to reach out and draw parallels from the movements before us. But it is wrong to do so if you are removing the context from which these movements emerged. I see this as something that ultimately serves to dilute their radicalism and true effects. By erasing history and lowering the standard, we lower the quality of what is deemed exceptional. Isay “we” because I myself am guilty of this. When I was organizing in my own city of Birmingham, I was constantly asked to compare myself to those who came before me. I tried to avoid this, but sometimes found myself cornered into drawing uncomfortable,awkward parallels. I usually found myself wondering: why aren’t we critiquing ourselves looking back at them instead of comparing ourselves to them? That analysis is lacking in this current era of record immigrant removals, record low union representation, and new forms of warfare through targeted assassination.
Over the years, I have sat back and watched much of this, disaffected. Now we are in the age of petition activism and online organizing. I see many young activists are turning to direct action to push back the tide of post 9/11 repression and it’s important to look at ourselves introspectively. The Dream Defenders have undoubtedly inspired many of us watching their month long sit in at the Governor’s office to repeal Florida’s so-called “Stand Your Ground” law. I was on their Facebook recently and was quite moved when I saw them paying tribute in a great way with a meme immortalizing Marcus Garvey. We don’t have time to daydream of ourselves as historical figures and place ourselves next to them in any framework. Legacy should be left up to the profound impacts of our work. This is not to take away from the work that anyone is doing, this is to properly respect that which has already been done. In the South, where the most important battles of the civil rights movement took place, there are a lot of aging activists to learn from. Before I left my home, my family and the footsoldiers of the movements that influenced me made one thing abundantly clear to me. There will only ever be one Harriet Tubman, only one Malcolm X, only one Medgar Evers, only one Fannie Lou Hamer, and of course, only one Martin. It might serve us better to write our own places in the pages of history without plagiarizing and appropriating theirs.
People will head to Washington D.C. to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March On Washington this weekend. Watch carefully and pay attention to who is using the message to promote themselves and who is reminding us of that time to promote many of those values in organizing. There has never been a perfect movement, but how much better would it be to pay respects to the foundation that has been laid with the mortar of our sincerest actions for a better world.