University of Texas historian Peniel Joseph recently wrote an article for the New Republic entitled Why Black Lives Matter Still Matters. In this article, Joseph explores how the Black Lives Matter movement is establishing a new and unique form of civil rights activism and organizing that builds on the strengths of both the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement of the 1960’s. He responds to criticisms of Black Lives Matter that suggest that the movement is devoid of goals and leadership by highlighting the intersectional nature and focus of this new movement. This article provides a timely and thoughtful analysis on the relationship between Black Lives Matter and the Civil Rights and Black Power movement in the 1960’s. Furthermore, this article, while not targeted specifically for Christians, provides some necessary and essential lessons for Christians interested in engaging in the struggle for racial justice in their church communities. There are 5 important lessons from this article.
- The necessity and impact of the Black Power Movement: In this article and in his book Dark Days Bright Nights, Joseph dispels the myths surrounding the Black Power movement of the late 1960’s. Many people refer to the Black Power Movement as the evil twin of the Civil Rights Movement and argue that the movement was violent, leaderless, and disorganized, accomplishing nothing. Furthermore, people canonize and embrace Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement while completely demonizing and rejecting Malcolm X and the Black Power Movement without any evidence or analysis of the movement. The Black Power Movement, like every other movement had many serious flaws and disorganized aspects. However, the movement was essential and had a significant impact on American society. The Black Power movement, which included the Black Panther Party for self-defense (not to be confused with the contemporary New Black Panther Party), forced a dialogue and understanding of racial consciousness and political power. The movement inspired black people to embrace their culture and identity, which created a space to advocate for greater black representation and value throughout society. The Black Power Movement inspired and fought for black representation in literature, art, politics, and intellectual scholarship which helped establish black studies programs throughout the country, black history month, and greater political power within the black community. The election of Barack Obama can be attributed to the push for greater black influence and representation in society by the Black Power Movement. This push has helped society better integrate black literature, art, and intellectual scholarship into the mainstream. While our academic institutions and public spaces are far from being inclusive and fully engaging of black intellectual, political, and artistic value, the movement forced a recognition of black achievement. Furthermore, the contemporary discussions around mass incarceration and police reform were in part inspired, not by Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement, but by groups like the Black Panther Party within the Black Power Movement. Christians who are passionate about celebrating black culture and taking a stand against prison and mass incarceration must understand the vital role the Black Power Movement played in this discussion.
- The lack of inclusivity in the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement: One of the biggest flaws of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement was its lack of representation and value of minorities within the black community. Leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X harbored some of the most vicious sexism of their era, where women were not valued and were reduced to submissive and inferior roles in the movements. Martin Luther King had once suggested that women had no place in the front line of the Civil Rights Movement. Furthermore, gay Civil Rights champion Bayard Rustin critiqued the Civil Rights movement for it’s lack of inclusivity and extreme homophobia. In fact, Rutstin was often shamed and disrespected by other Civil Rights leaders for his sexuality. Many Christians look to the Civil Rights movement as a model for faith-based work around racial justice and other social justice issues. What many ignore is how the movement, with all its glories, failed to address other systemic issues including sexism and homophobia, and in so many cases, contributed to the oppression of marginalized groups within the black community.
- Why the intersectionality of Black Lives Matter matters: The Black Lives Matter movement embraces and values intersectionality, which highlights and focuses on the intersection between different social identities and the struggle against oppression. This focus has inspired Black Lives Matter to focus its policy agenda on issues that impact all of black identity. Rather than focusing exclusively on the voices and perspectives of black men, like movements of the past have done, Black Lives Matter engages with and addresses issues impacting black women, LGBT blacks, and others who have been traditionally excluded and ignored by the heterosexual patriarchy within the black community. The Black Lives Matter movement was founded by 3 queer women, which is far more inclusive and democratic than the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement. This intersectionality matters because a fight for racial justice must include fights against sexism, homophobia, classism, and other social injustices. One cannot be fully committed to racial justice if he/she is unwilling to recognize the complexity of structural racism and how it intersects with other forms of oppression.
- The need for multiple approaches: The Black Lives Matter movement rejects the either/or fallacy that suggests that they must adopt one perspective of black liberation. Many black Americans have tried to align themselves with one philosophy for racial justice, generally comparing Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The reality is that both perspectives are necessary and valuable and there needs to be multiple approaches to addressing racial issues. The Civil Rights Movement emphasized things that the Black Power Movement did not and vice versa. For Christians, this means recognizing the value of different perspectives in fighting racial justice and understanding their role in this struggle.
- Why Black Lives Matter is necessary: Black Lives Matter is necessary because it offers a new and unique approach to Civil Rights activism and represents a critical movement in the fight against institutional racism. This movement forges the nonviolent approaches of the Civil Rights movement and the substantive critiques of systemic racism in the Black Power Movement, upholding the strengths of both movements. While there are legitimate and understandable critiques of Black Lives Matter, the movement is necessary and essential.
Peniel Joseph’s article provides a solid understanding of Black Lives Matter and dispels many of the myths and misunderstanding surrounding the movement. This is an important article for Christians to read in understanding a significant movement to fight against injustices that black brothers and sisters face. The movement is not perfect and without flaws; however, it is necessary and it must be understood.