The recent wave of protests against police brutality and systemic racism has inspired numerous comparisons with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Commentators frequently depict the charismatic leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in sharp contrast with the decentralized and seemingly leaderless nature of the current movement.
Despite the efforts of activists and historians to correct this “leaderless” image, the notion persists. Such comparisons reflect the cultural memory – not the actual history – of the struggle for Black equality.
American Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., flanked by Rev. Ralph Abernathy (center left) and Nobel Prize-winning political scientist and diplomat Ralph Bunche (center right) during the third Selma to Montgomery, Alabama march for voting rights, March 21, 1965. PhotoQuest/Getty Images
Heroic struggle led by charismatic men
Through collective remembering and forgetting, societies build narratives of the past to create a shared identity – what scholars refer to as cultural memory.
The civil rights movement is remembered as a heroic struggle against injustice led by charismatic men. That is not the whole story.
King’s soaring rhetoric and Malcolm’s unflinching social critiques have supplanted recollection of the significant work performed by legions of local leaders, whose grassroots organizational style more closely resembled the efforts of Black Lives Matter activists and other contemporary social justice groups to build movements full of leaders.
These efforts, designed to cultivate white sympathy for civil rights activists, relied on conformity with patriarchal gender roles that elevated men to positions of visible leadership, confined women to the background and banished LGBTQ individuals to the closet.
Yet the movement could not have happened without the extraordinary leadership of Black women like veteran organizer Ella Baker. Baker’s model of grassroots activism and empowerment for young and marginalized people became the driving force of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC, and other nonviolent protest organizations, past and present.
The decentralized structure of the current movement builds on this history of grassroots activism while working to avoid replicating the entrenched sexism and homophobia of an earlier era.
SNCC transformed lives by recognizing talent and empowering marginalized people. As Joe Martin, one of the organizers of a student walkout in McComb, Mississippi, recalled, “If you had a good idea it was accepted regardless of what your social status was.”
Endesha Ida Mae Holland, a teenage prostitute, found purpose as a SNCC field secretary, organizing and leading marches in Greenwood, Mississippi. Facing down Police Chief Curtis Lary “made me feel so proud,” she recalled, and “people start looking up into my face, into my eyes” with respect. Holland went on to become an award-winning playwright and distinguished university professor.
Black Lives Matter co-founders Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors also encourage strategies that place marginalized voices at the center.
Elevating “Black trans people, Black queer people, Black immigrants, Black incarcerated people and formerly incarcerated people, Black millennials, Black women, low income Black people, and Black people with disabilities” to leadership roles, they wrote, “allows for leadership to emerge from our intersecting identities, rather than to be organized around one notion of Blackness.”
Black women and teens have played a critical role in organizing, leading and maintaining the momentum of recent protests.
Kimberly Jones captured the nation’s attention with an impassioned takedown of institutional racism and debates over appropriate forms of protest. After repeatedly breaking the social contract to keep wealth and opportunity out of reach for black communities, Jones concludes, white Americans “are lucky that what black people are looking for is equality and not revenge.”
Women have organized family-friendly demonstrations, including the “Black Mamas March” in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a “Black Kids Matter” protest in Hartford, Connecticut.
Six young women, aged 14 to 16, organized a peaceful protest attracting more than 10,000 people in Nashville, Tennessee, while 17-year-old Tiana Day led a march on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
Full of leaders
Seventeen-year-old Tiana Day leads a march on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, June 6, 2020, to protest the death of George Floyd. AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
The adaptive “low ego/high impact” leadership model, in which leaders serve as coaches helping groups build their own solutions, has become popular among current social justice organizations, but it is not new.
Baker encouraged civil rights organizations to “develop individuals” and provide “an opportunity for them to grow.” She praised SNCC for “working with indigenous people, not working for them.”
“You don’t have to worry about where your leaders are,” former SNCC organizer Robert Moses reflected. “If you go out and work with your people, then the leadership will emerge.”
Campaigns are exhausting and external recognition as a “leader” can take a heavy toll. Spreading leadership around helps to protect any one person from becoming a target for retaliation while advancing a stream of talent to rise as individual energy wanes.
Returning from a citizenship training program in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1963, Fannie Lou Hamer was arrested and severely beaten, leaving her with permanent injuries. Holland’s mother died when their house in Greenwood, Mississippi, was bombed in 1965 in retaliation for her activism.
Civil rights worker Anne Moodyrecounted how the physical and psychological toll of constant harassment by white supremacists in 1963 forced her to leave a voter registration drive in Canton, Mississippi, saying “I was on the verge of a breakdown” and “would have died from lack of sleep and nervousness” had she stayed “another week.”
In a 2017 interview, Erica Garner, who became a tireless campaigner against police brutality after her father, Eric Garner, died from a New York police officer’s chokehold in 2014, echoed Moody’s comments.
“I’m struggling right now with the stress and everything. … The system beats you down to where you can’t win,” she said. Just three weeks after that interview, Erica Garner died of a heart attack at the age of 27.
Comparisons to the romanticized cultural memory of charismatic leadership in the Civil Rights Movement devalues the hard work of today’s activists – as well as those who worked hard outside of the limelight in the earlier movement. Social change – then and now – derives from a critical mass of local work throughout the nation. Those who cannot find leaders in this movement are not looking hard enough.
Rosa Parks is affectionately known as the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement” after she refused to surrender her bus seat to a White passenger. But what some may not know is that there was another African American female who performed this same courageous act several months before Parks.
Her name is Claudette Colvin, and with thick glasses framing her small face, and roller set curls hanging on her forehead, a curious and awakened Claudette Colvin defied the law and—to many—logic. At only 15 years old, her disobedience was anything but sophomoric. In her time and geographical location, Blacks were harassed, beaten, and lynched without regard to age or sex. Despite grueling conditions of the Jim Crow South, on March 2, 1955, the young Claudette stood her ground on a Montgomery, Alabama bus and refused to give up her seat for a White passenger.
There were several reasons why Claudette’s valiant efforts were suppressed and not widely known. One of those reasons was that because of her age, Claudette was considered “unreliable” by leading civil rights groups. In addition to ageism, classism and colorism may have played a role as well: Claudette was from a working-class family, and according to her, that fact—as well as her dark complexion—made her an unpalatable choice to garner the sympathies of the masses, both Black and White. Claudette also had one other undesirable issue separating her from history books: a few months after her arrest, Claudette became pregnant. Thus, the upright Rosa Parks, who was considered “morally clean” by then NAACP leader E.D. Nixon, overshadowed the dark, poor, unwed pregnant teenager.
In 1956, Colvin was one of four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, which ruled that Montgomery’s segregated bus system was unconstitutional.
Let’s talk about it. Can you think of other unsung, Black American heroes? Share their stories in the comments below.
Lecrae wins a 2013 Grammy for “Best Gospel Album” (Photo courtesy of Newscom).
Two men. Both Black. Both Grammy award-winning hip-hop artists. Two completely different messages. Within one week both Lil’ Wayne and Lecrae made headlines for their music, but for very different reasons.
Last week, Christian hip-hop artist, Lecrae, won a Grammy for “Best Gospel Album” at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards. The prestige of music’s highest honor is noteworthy enough, but Lecrae’s achievement as a vocally Christian rapper is rare.
The part of the line that has caused so much controversy is the reference to Emmett Till. In 1955, Till, just 14 years old, was brutally murdered in Mississippi after allegedly whistling at a White woman. The tragedy sent ripples across the nation as graphic images of the boy’s mutilated face (his mother had insisted on an open casket to display the brutality) were splashed across newspapers and magazines. The two White men charged in the crime were both acquitted by an all-White jury.
Wayne’s lyric serves as painful reminder of the importance of Black History month. Many will miss the offense of Wayne’s reference if they fail to understand the identity and significance of Emmet Till. The maiming of Till’s memory, however, is just the start.
Wayne’s words speak of doing violence to a woman’s reproductive organs and reveal the misogyny that has become commonplace and even celebrated in much of hip-hop. His line also reveals the distorted and grotesque picture of manhood – one that defines masculinity in terms of sexual exploits and violence – that he and other hip-hop artists often portray.
In contrast, Lecrae uses his lyrical talents to pen lines like, “Ain’t dope dealin’, ain’t Po pimpin’, talkin’ ‘bout my own folk killin’/ We on that Jesus soul healin” (from the song “Fakin‘”). Lecrae talks openly about being a Christian and makes it clear his faith drives his art. An urban evangelist, he hopes to use his talent to penetrate mainstream hip-hop with an alternative message for the listeners.
Lil’ Wayne is not the anti-Christ and Lecrae is not sinless. Each of these men, like all of us, are sinners. We all have wicked hearts and no one has lived in perfect obedience to God as we were designed to do. But there is a difference between these two artists. Redemption.
The Redemption of Culture and All Creation
I can’t make any judgments about Lil’ Wayne’s or Lecrae’s salvation. I simply see the fruits of each man’s life and art. Lil’ Wayne’s lyrics seem to be essentially human-centered. Instead of looking up, his lyrics encourage listeners to look within. By focusing only on the self, life becomes defined by personal pleasure and material prosperity. Lecrae’s music encourages people find their identity in God first, and then act in harmony with their status as God’s children.
As believers we must begin working out redemption here and now. Christ calls His followers the light of the world, the salt of the earth, and a city on a hill (Mt. 5:13-15). So, culture-shaping cannot be left to an elite few. Whether a hip-hop artist, a hair stylist, or a health inspector, all Christians must strive to be agents of redemptive change wherever God has placed us. If we live this way then, in many respects, the contrast between the redeemed and unredeemed life should look as stark as the contrast between Lil’ Wayne’s and Lecrae’s lyrics.
Mary Lou Williams (Photo courtesy of William P. Gotlieb/Library of Congress)
In recognition of Black History Month, we are highlighting the liturgical work and faith journey of Mary Lou Williams, a pioneering jazz pianist and composer. Williams, who died in 1981 at age 71, was a prolific artist, writing and arranging hundreds of compositions and released dozens of recordings, including A Keyboard Historyand the Mass for Peace. Along the way, she worked with jazz giants such as Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman and served as a mentor to other seminal figures, including Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.
This Wednesday, Deanna Witkowski, an UrbanFaith contributor, will lead a quartet and 12-voice choir of professional jazz vocalists in a performance of works by the trailblazing artist at The Park Avenue Christian Church, 1010 Park Avenue at 85th Street in Manhattan. Witkowski will also facilitate a pre-concert talk starting at 7:15 pm on the importance and influence of Williams on current jazz musicians.
The featured work on the program is Williams’ 1967 “Music for Peace,” a monumental work of sacred jazz informed by the Civil Rights movement and the liturgical reforms of the Roman Catholic Church’s Vatican II Council, as well as Williams’ own deep personal faith. Her remarkably original settings of traditional liturgical texts embrace a compendium of jazz styles, from blues to bossa nova. Music for Peace, received with great acclaim, was later choreographed and performed by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater as “Mary Lou’s Mass.”
For those of you who live or work in the greater New York City area, we hope that you will be able to attend this faith-filled encomium to Williams’ work.
Mary J. Blige and Angela Bassett star as “Betty & Coretta” in Lifetime’s original movie (Photo credit: Richard McLaren/Lifetime.com)
The old saying goes, “Behind every great man, there is a woman.” I have observed, however, that “beside every great man, there is a woman.” Such is the case with Civil Rights advocates, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. While many are familiar with their stories, few know the stories of their devoted wives Coretta Scott King and Dr. Betty Shabazz. More surprisingly the friendship that formed between these two women after the assassinations of their husbands is an untold story.
That is until Lifetime boldly presented this bond of sister and womanhood in the television world premiere of “Betty and Coretta” last weekend. A corporate executive at A&E Network did confirm that the Shabazz and King families were not consulted for the film, noting the temptation for family members to protect their legacies. Given the documented inward fighting between siblings in both families, viewers can understand (at least partially) the network’s decision. Some of the heirs are not happy with the flick.
Ilyasah Shabazz, third daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz and author of Growing Up X, called the film “inaccurate.” There are a few grievances raised: Contrary to Ilyasah’s statement, there are several pictures available online portraying Dr. Shabazz’s head covered with a scarf. Whether or not Dr. Shabazz spoke on her death bed is somewhat irrelevant. The point is Mrs. King did come to be at her friend, Betty’s side in the days leading up to her death. According to the children, moreover, there was a house visit portrayed in the movie which never really took place. Whenever a person’s life is brought to a film there is a certain level of embellishment that goes with the territory because producers are attempting to share a big story in a finite amount of time; smooth transitions are needed to move the story line forward and still capture the big picture. With the aforementioned reasons in mind, one can hardly call Lifetime’s portrayal a work of fiction.
Lifetime took great care adding credibility to the film by featuring actress, Ruby Dee, as narrator of the movie and dear friend of the Shabazz family. The movie picks up right before the assassinations of Malcolm (February 21, 1965) and Martin (April 4, 1968), and opened with Ruby Dee (who recently turned 90 years old) setting the stage for the times of racism, war, and poverty in America. Throughout the film she continues sharing facts about the deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, the Black National Political Convention (of 10,000 attendees where Coretta and Betty first met), the lobbying and six million signatures Mrs. King gathered to make Martin Luther King, Jr. a National Holiday, and she narrates all the way to the deaths of both phenomenal women.
The movie is not about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Malik Yoba), Malcolm X (Lindsay Owen Pierre), or their legacies per se. The movie is also not about the King and Shabazz children. The movie focuses on two women who were powerful, strong, faithful, and devoted leaders in their own rights. The film spans three decades and weaves the lives of these two civil rights activists and shares how they stood for justice.
A pregnant, Betty Shabazz (Mary J. Blige) and her four daughters watched her husband being gunned down as he took the stage to deliver what became his last message. After Malcolm X’s assassination, Betty delivered twin girls, which made her a single mother with six small children. With the help of friends and those in her community, Betty cared for her family and earned a doctorate degree in high-education administration from the University of Massachusetts. She became an associate professor of health sciences at New York’s Medgar Evers College. She spent the rest of her life working as an university administrator and fundraiser, before she died on June 23, 1997 as a result of injuries sustained by a fire her 10-year-old grandson, Malcolm set in her home.
As a widow, Coretta Scott King (Angela Bassett) raised four children while remaining a leading participant in the Civil Rights Movement. She went from being her husband’s motivator and partner in the movement to being a justice advocate to the world. In addition to lobbying for the national King Holiday (first celebrated in January 1986), she became president, chair, and Chief Executive Officer of The King Center in Atlanta, GA. At the end of the movie, Ruby Dee notes that Mrs. King died in 2006, nine years after Dr. Shabazz, from ovarian cancer.
Lifetime briefly mentioned the retreat at the end of the movie (hence the purpose of the Betty Shabazz hospital bed scene). However, Myrlie Evers-Williams’ character only makes a brief appearance in the film when Dr. Shabazz took the position to teach at Medgar Evers College. Maybe one day, Myrlie Evers-Williams will tell her side of this story.
What Their Stories Mean for Us
All things considered, I believe we have a reason to rejoice with the production of this film. Mrs. King and Dr. Shabazz came together to shepherd the legacies of their husbands, but that is only part of their stories. The bigger story is these women stood together and turned their tragedies into triumphs. Even more important, both women used their faith, family, and friendships to advocate justice on behalf of women, children, the poor, and oppressed. They stood together and changed the world.
A twitter reflection by @lativida sums it up well: Take note all you dumb reality shows! This is how REAL BLACK WIVES act! These women knew real pain and persevered! #BettyandCoretta.
Betty and Coretta were strong in their own rights. They were single mothers who became grandmothers and they took care of their families. They took the mantles that were passed to them and used them as a foundation to build their communities and our nation. They remind us, each of us (the single mother, wife, or young person of any gender), of what we can do with faith, friendship, and forgiveness, for this, yes this is how real black wives behave! Thank God for their tenacity, legacies, and friendship.