From the dawning of America, there have been movements. Social uprisings that call for an idealistic change. A revision to the social norm. A call to action. These past movements have been well documented. From the Civil War to the Vietnam protests, movements continue to be ingrained in the fabric of American history.
Black Lives Matter is currently a new movement calling for racial equality for African-Americans. Not long ago, the Civil Rights Movement called for the same thing. What are these two movements about? How do they compare?
Let’s take a candid look at history and the present.
The Movement Begins
December 1, 1955.
Rosa Parks boarded the Montgomery, AL city bus to head home after work. Due to Jim Crow laws (laws put in place to create segregation between Caucasians and other races), Ms. Parks sat in the African-American section. This portion was usually the middle to back of the bus. As was the custom with Jim Crow laws, when the bus became full, African-Americans were required to give up their seats to other Caucasian patrons. Refusing this service to a white patron was grounds for arrest.
Ms. Parks was approached with this request. Tired of giving in, Ms. Parks refused, and was subsequently taken to jail for her offense. A local civil rights group, the Montgomery Improvement Association, planned and executed the now famous Montgomery Bus boycott. Lead by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the idea to boycott segregation through economic means spread quickly throughout the south. As African-Americans made up 75 percent of the customers, the boycott posed a significant threat to city financials. It also posed a threat to the supremacy of southern whites. The boycott lasted 381 days leading to the ruling from the United States Supreme Court that segregation was unequal according to the constitution.
The movement began.
February 26, 2012.
Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old African-American male, was walking home from the gas station on a rainy Florida night. Neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, spotted Martin and thought him to be suspicious. Following his suspicions, Zimmerman called 911 and proceeded to follow Martin home. Martin and Zimmerman soon got into a scuffle and Martin was fatally shot.
In 2013, Zimmerman was acquitted of second degree murder and the lesser charge of manslaughter. His acquittal incited outrage across the nation. The event was the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back” sparking immediate protest regarding racial profiling and Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. While prosecutors of the case, and major media outlets stressed racism was not involved, many believed Zimmerman racially profiled Martin who was wearing a hoodie at the time of his death. People gathered across the United States to call for justice. Major media outlets highlighted the situation with 24 hour news coverage.
The movement began.
What do Rosa Parks and Trayvon Martin have in common? Not much. Ms. Parks was a woman working for change, and the advancement of equality for her people. Trayvon Martin was your typical 21st century American teenager. He enjoyed social media, and hanging out with his friends. For all practical purposes, Trayvon didn’t get to experience life before he was killed. So, what’s the connection?
They are the faces of the movement.
Ms. Parks’s name is synonymous with the Civil Rights Movement, and Trayvon Martin’s death brought Black Lives Matter into fruition. Two different movements, yet they are one and the same.
They represent a fight for equality for African-Americans.
Civil Rights Movement
The Civil Rights Movement is a pivotal point in American history. It called for ethical treatment for people of all races, namely African-Americans. Jim Crow laws were challenged on all fronts. African-Americans began to speak out in a political means that shook the structure of the nation. Organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) came into prominence as members of all races joined the fight for racial equality. Marches, lunch counter sit-ins, and political rallies were a means to show unity for the cause of racial equality.
The Civil Rights Movement did not start, or end, in the 1960’s. That is merely the culmination of tangible change in America. This movement has been going since the prevalence of slavery.
President Abraham Lincoln formally added the 13th Amendment to end slavery on January 31, 1865. Jim Crow laws were established in 1877 as a means of segregation. These laws enforced the slavery mindset that Caucasians were the superior race emphasizing the “separate but equal” mantra from the famous U.S. Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson. This was a landmark case as it allowed states to legally segregate blacks and whites. Black people were not allowed to drink from the same water fountain, eat with white people (if the two groups did mix, then whites were to be served first with a partition in place to separate both groups), or show public affection towards one another as this could offend white citizens. Blacks were to show the utmost respect to a white person in conversation by not accusing them of lying or other ill intentions, not showing superior knowledge in a specific subject, and not commenting on a white lady’s appearance. The penalty for these “crimes” could have lead to death.
As in the case of Emmett Till.
Emmett Till was a 14 year old boy from Chicago visiting his family in Money, MS. During his stay, he and his cousins went to Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market. Carolyn Bryant was tending to the store as her husband, Roy Bryant, was away on business. According to Till’s cousin, Simeon Wright, Till “wolf-whistled” at Carolyn which was expressly forbidden between a black man and white woman. Upon finding out, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam (Roy’s brother) repeatedly pistol whipped and beat Till. Ultimately, they made him strip naked, shot him, tied an industrial fan around his neck using barbed-wire, and dumped his body in a river. His body was found by some children approximately three days later. It was so disfigured the only way they could identify the body was through an initialed ring owned by Till.
Upon finding out her son was killed, Mamie Till-Mobley requested the body be sent back to Chicago. She subsequently had one of the most famous open casket funerals in American history. She allowed images of her son’s disfigured body to be seen across the nation. Jet magazine published photos of Till’s corpse which took the story of Emmett Till to a national scale.
Bryant and Milam were tried in court, by an all-white jury, and were found not guilty of Till’s murder. After the hearing, they both admitted to killing Till in a chilling interview with Look magazine. As they had already been acquitted of the murder, new charges were not filed after the confession was made public.
Till’s death, in conjunction with Ms. Parks’s refusal to accommodate a white bus patron, sparked national outcry from African-Americans. These events served as catalysts to the notion that blacks should not have to live in fear for their lives. They should be able to live in peace like their white counterparts. The Civil Rights Movement would come to it’s height in victory with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
These victories created change on a national front. The death of Till, and the actions of Ms. Parks, did not go in vain as African-Americans were allowed to integrate with Caucasians in any public setting. Life did not immediately turn around the moment these acts were signed. However, they were a stepping stone to racial equality.
Black Lives Matter
The moment George Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder/manslaughter, Black Lives Matter was born. Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors lamented the killing of Trayvon and subsequent acquittal of Zimmerman. They were outraged at the message once again sent to the nation that black lives are not equal in systemic America. The hashtag was created out of anger and frustration with a system that seemingly went against African-Americans more often that not.
Black Lives Matter is a chapter-based, national organization. Much like its predecessors in the Civil Rights Movement, Black Lives Matter looks to increase the quality of life for African-Americans. The origin of this movement was not to declare that black lives are more important than any other race. Rather, it was a call to take a candid look at African-American/Law Enforcement/justice system relations. Black Lives Matter looks to expose, and change, systemic racism in order for African-Americans to truly be liberated. The perception for members of this movement is blacks are treated equivocally within the justice system to include police interaction.
As it sits, there are several names that can be substituted for Trayvon Martin’s. According to USA Today, approximately 30 unarmed black males were killed in police shootings since the death of Michael Brown, another high profile police shooting. Being unarmed is a special point of interest as law enforcement officers have to justify the use of force. According to reports by The Guardian, African-Americans are twice as likely to be unarmed when killed during encounters with police as opposed to Caucasians. Of 464 people killed so far this year in law enforcement incidents, 102 were not carrying weapons. As of 2015, 32% of blacks killed by police were armed. This is opposed to 25% for the Hispanic or Latino community, and 15% for Caucasians. In the eyes of Black Lives Matter, this is systemic racism at work.
The case of Zimmerman had many feeling as though justice was not served. Trayvon, an unarmed teen, was killed by a citizen (vigilante is how Black Lives Matter advocates describe Zimmerman) to which the jury acquitted Zimmerman of all charges. Based on the Stand Your Ground law, it was determined Zimmerman shot Trayvon in self-defense. On the other hand, Marissa Alexander fired warning shots at her allegedly abusive husband and claimed self-defense in court under the same law. Alexander took a plea deal; a 20 year sentence for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Had she not taken the deal, she could have been sentenced up to 60 years in jail. After the Zimmerman acquittal, Alexander’s case was reviewed as the Stand Your Ground law did not yield the same results. She was subsequently released to two years of house arrest.
Black Lives Matter advocates have been loud and passionate for cases such as Alexander and Martin. The question is why is there a discrepancy within in the system that allows for blacks to be killed with no penalty, and jailed under the same law? Understanding every case is different, the perception in the black community is African-Americans were once again treated unequally under the law.
What’s the Difference
There are a lot of similarities between the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter. The overall sentiment is a demand for racial equality. Each movement has it’s detractors, as well. The people who are rooted and grounded in traditional American values that reject any type of change in ideals. In the 1960’s, there was a visible social/racial hierarchy. In that time, whites made it abundantly clear that blacks were not on the same level. Because of that mindset, the Civil Rights Movement saw substantial, ground breaking changes. Blacks were now able to participate in voting. They were considered for jobs previously held for whites only. Education became increasingly available for people of color. Schools were integrated. Change was visible. However, these changes did not eradicate the mindset of systemic racism. Just because segregation was outlawed does not mean blacks had to be socially accepted. The mindset of “I’m better than you” still existed. These days, racism has changed from loud, boisterous displays of intolerance to implicit words and actions. This is why Black Lives Matter faces a different struggle.
Black Lives Matter is fighting a perception. This viewpoint is not new, nor is the attitude that goes along with it. However, the difference of this struggle lies in the illusion of equality. If you look at the America, then you will see plenty of successful African-Americans. President Obama, Colin Powell, Ben Carson, Condoleeza Rice, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and a plethora of others have found success in their respective fields. Outside of fame, African-Americans are doctors, lawyers, law enforcement officers, educators, and journalists working in integrated work environments. In short, it’s not 1955 anymore. So, what’s the problem?
The problem is the perception of violence, criminalization, and sexualization within African-American culture.
When looking at the statistics, it appears African-Americans are an increasingly violent race. According to FBI 2013 murder statistics , black on black crime stats are about 90 percent. As blacks are only 13% of the U.S. population, that means intraracial murders are at a rate 4 times higher than the national average. Critics of Black Lives Matter point to these stats as proof that the African-American community needs work out their own issues before protesting anything else. As so poignantly stated by Bill O’Reilly, one of the movement’s biggest critics.
The problem with quoting these statistics is they do not tell the whole story. Intraracial crime stats are high among all races. However, statistics as stated above are used as a distraction to the movement. Here’s an example of this distraction.
Let’s take a look at Emmett Till’s case through 2015 eyes.
We have a black kid that disrespected a white lady. The white lady’s husband and brother-in-law find said child, beat and kill him. They are tried in court, acquitted, and confess to the murder because double jeopardy means they can’t be tried for the same crime twice. Till’s family is left to pick up the pieces of injustice, and social media goes into an absolute frenzy. People argue that Till shouldn’t have whistled. He’d be alive if he didn’t disrespect Carolyn. People outraged at Till’s death would plead their case saying it’s not justifiable for a child to be killed over whistling at a woman. The other side would respond that Till was not a child because he was built larger than your average 14 year old. Both sides would argue if race played a role in the murder. Upholders of Bryant’s and Milam’s actions would point to black on black crime as a reason why the murder isn’t really important. They would talk about how Till was a lawless, disrespectful thug whose parents should have raised him better. They would make jokes about him being a single parent child, and how this is indicative of African-American culture. The counterargument would say none of that justifies his murder.
This conversation occurs every time there is a high profile police shooting or court case involving blacks. The conversation turns to what the African-American community needs to do instead of acknowledging and addressing systemic racial issues.
Not That Far Removed
Let’s interchange Till’s name with some others.
Michael Brown. Oscar Grant. Tamir Rice. Freddie Grey. Sandra Bland. Laquan McDonald. Walter Scott. Corey Jones. Jamar Clark. John Crawford. Eric Garner.
These names, and many more, have followed the pattern of Emmett Till. Trayvon Martin in particular. Two African-American males, one racially profiled and the other violated a social norm, killed by vigilantes seeking justice. The suspects are absolved of all charges. And then they revel in their freedom showing no remorse for the deaths of the boys in the media. Bear in mind that it’s been 60 years since the death of Till. So, we are not that far removed from the Civil Rights Era. Yet, the fight for equality is still as prevalent now as it was in the 1950’s.
The Movement Continues
Different names. Different circumstances. The same cause. Racial equality. Whether you agree with Black Lives Matter or not, we are living in an exciting time. We are watching history unfold before our eyes. Not since the 1960’s have we seen race be a significant discussion to the degree that it is today. Just as the Civil Rights Movement created some of the most important moments in American history, Black Lives Matter looks to do what no other movement has done to date.
Change the perception of black people.
Stay tuned! As the movement continues…