Leonard Pitts Jr

Black activists of the 21st century are taking it beyond ‘takin’ it to the streets’

Directors Sabaah Folayan, left, and Damon Davis promote the film, ‘Whose Streets?’ at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
Directors Sabaah Folayan, left, and Damon Davis promote the film, ‘Whose Streets?’ at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP

For better than a century, he sat astride his horse on a bluff high above the Mississippi River.

He sat there as Model Ts trundled beneath, and biplanes carved the skies overhead. He sat there as the river rose and fell, as the stock market crashed, as local boys kissed their sweethearts and went off to war, never to return. He sat there as B.B. King taught Elvis Presley a few new licks in some Beale Street dive. He sat there as the shot rang out, and Martin Luther King was hammered down to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.  

Nixon lied, Elvis died, the Internet rose, the towers fell, a newly elected president named Barack Obama exulted that “Change has come to America” and yet still, there he sat, unchanged.

He sat there so long that maybe people forgot to even notice the abhorrent absurdity of it, Nathan Bedford Forrest, slave trader, Confederate general, leader of a massacre of unarmed black people, early grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, sitting on a bluff above a river in a city that is over 60 percent black. Or maybe they just saw it and sighed and accepted it as some immutable part of The Way Things Are.

Then Tami Sawyer got frustrated. “We can’t change nothing,” she complained one day to friends. “We’ve got Confederate statues in the middle of our city. Nobody wants change. And somebody was like, ‘Go make that change.’ 

So she did.

She’s hardly the only one. Indeed, 50 years after Martin Luther King was murdered here and the crusade he led sputtered to an end, the great untold story of this political moment is that activism is back. Indeed, if King, in some sense, invented modern activism, what we are seeing now is its re-invention.

The new movement, unlike the old, is not dominated by clergy or appeals to faith, though both do play a part. The new movement, unlike the old, has taken no explicit vow of pacifism, though no leader has embraced violence, either. The new movement, unlike the old, is not aimed at the explicit badges of segregation — the “Whites Only” and “No Negroes Need Apply” signs that are visible now are only in museums and history books. Instead, the new movement is picking up where King left off, going into battle against systemic oppression: mass incarceration, police brutality, structural poverty.

The one thing both movements have in common, though, is an understanding that at its most effective, protest is theater. Which is why, with apologies to the Doobie Brothers, people are takin’ it to the streets with a force and fervor not seen since, well … people were buying records by the Doobie Brothers.

It’s not just a black thing. From the Occupy movement to the Women’s March to the Fight for $15 to #MeToo, to last month’s March For Our Lives, recent years have seen a multicultural tide of Americans rise to express their collective dissent on a variety of issues. But African-American causes and African-American leaders have surely been prominent among them.

Street protests have rocked cities big and small — Ferguson, Baltimore, Sacramento, Los Angeles, New York, Minneapolis, Miami, Fort Lauderdale — over unpunished police killings of unarmed African-American people.

In Charleston, as politicians harrumphed and pontificated about whether to lower the Confederate battle flag in the wake of a white supremacist slaughter in an historic black church, a young woman named Bree Newsome climbed the flagpole at the South Carolina statehouse and snatched it down.

In San Francisco, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the National Anthem in protest of unpunished police violence against African Americans, igniting both a movement among other athletes and a furious backlash from affronted conservatives.

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II speaks during a news conference after a second night of violence following Tuesday's fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, N.C. Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016. Charlottte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney has said that Scott refused officers' repeated commands to drop a gun, but he said during a news conference that the video does not definitely show Scott pointing a gun at anyone. Chuck Burton AP

And from Goldsboro, North Carolina, the Rev. Dr. William Barber is, with Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, reigniting Martin Luther King’s last and most audacious dream. Meaning his “Poor People’s Campaign,” a frontal assault by a coalition of African Americans, whites, Latinos, Native Americans, Democrats and Republicans against structural poverty.

He says the campaign, which will start on Mother’s Day and hit 30 states and Washington, D.C., in 40 days, is a moral wake-up call. “We will not let it be said that in our time and in our lives and in our moment, we did not stand up. And we know that down through the years, injustice, oppression has always, ultimately been defeated. It doesn’t mean justice wasn’t beat up and bruised and hurt and love wasn’t beaten up, bruised and crucified. But ultimately, [injustice] is always defeated even against overwhelming odds.”

One hears more than a little echo of King in Barber’s implicit insistence that the question of how we treat “the least of these” is a moral litmus test. It seems fitting. It also seems fitting that this city where King died figures prominently in this resurgence of activism.

Take Tami Sawyer. Challenged to make a change instead of just griping about Confederate statues, Sawyer, now a 35-year-old candidate for Shelby County commissioner, organized a public meeting.

“Fifty people came out on a Wednesday afternoon to put their voices on record about why they wanted the statues down,” she says. “From there we just kept pushing. The mayor kept saying, ‘I’m working on this. They don’t need a movement.’ He was very condescending, didn’t want to hear s--t about what we had to say. But we agitated, and Charlottesville, Virginia, happened and we agitated some more. They arrested seven of our folks, and we continued to agitate.”

White supremacists staged counter protests. Sawyer received threats of death and rape. One time, she says, two white guys followed her in their car.

Shortly before Christmas of last year, the campaign bore fruit. The city reached an agreement to sell the park containing the statue of Forrest and another that was home to a statue of Jefferson Davis to a nonprofit group for a nominal cost — $1,000 apiece — and under cover of darkness, the statues came down.

“[Critics say] there’s more important things,” says Sawyer. “I’m not dumb. Of course there’s more important things. But if we can’t fight the easiest of things … how are we going to then do the work I do every day for educational equity? … If we can’t remove statues, how are we going to end mass incarceration?”

Keedran Franklin Yalonda M. James

Nor is she the only Memphian making waves. The Rev. Earle J. Fisher, of Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church, and activist /rapper Keedran Franklin both were prominent among the voices demanding accountability after the 2015 shooting of Darrius Stewart, an unarmed 19-year-old African-American man killed after struggling with a police officer during a traffic stop.

During the Christmas season of 2015, Fisher helped lead a boycott to protest the shooting. In August of 2016, both were part of a group of protesters denied entry to one of the city’s showplaces — Graceland — during a public vigil. The following January, they filed a federal civil rights complaint alleging that they were singled out because of their race.

But the two are probably best known for an impromptu demonstration in July of that year in which more than a thousand protesters shut down Interstate 40, which spans the Mississippi and connects Tennessee to Arkansas. As Franklin sees it, the best way for activism to get results — especially in the South — is to hit people in their wallets.

“The money hoarders don’t adhere to being cordial or civilized,” he says. “So you take steps from King and Rosa and them’s book and you stop commerce. We take that kind of recourse. We stop a million dollars, two million dollars of their commerce within a day or two days. It’s more of a ‘hit ’em in the mouth’ strategy versus, ‘Let’s just try to get some legislation.’ They don’t care about that. In New York or Philly or Seattle, you’ve got a different mindset. Down South, you’ve pretty much got to force people to know you’re getting f----- over.”

For the record, a grand jury eventually declined to indict the officer who killed Stewart, despite a recommendation from the district attorney. But then, activism is not a promise of success. That’s not the point, says Barber.

“Every generation, whether it’s the abolition movement in the 1850s or it’s the women’s-suffrage movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s or it’s the Bonus Marches that helped produce the New Deal in the 1930s, every generation has had to stand up. There has to be a moral dissent and a moral critique in every, every, every generation. If there is injustice, if there is oppression, every generation has to pick it up. The success begins when you stand up and challenge it. We know that launching this movement is not going to fix everything immediately, but there’s something worse than not fixing everything immediately, and that’s not even beginning.”

It is, by definition a subjective thing, but there seems a general consensus that while this new age of activism has many forebears — including the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer and the coming of social media, which have made organizing masses of people much easier than in the days of rotary dial telephones and mimeograph machines — the single most important factor in its rise was the presidency of Barack Obama. More precisely, it was the birthers and the tea party, the Republican decision to obstruct at every turn, Rep. Joe Wilson yelling “You lie!” and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer wagging her finger in the president’s face, the calculated, and implicitly racist, disrespect with which white conservatives chose to treat the nation’s first African-American chief executive.

As Rev. Fisher puts it, “I think black folks were coming into the realization that, ‘There is a black man in the White House [but] we’re still black in America and are being treated as such.’ The progressive policies and initiatives that President Obama tried to put together notwithstanding, this was still the reality.”

Sawyer recalls having a conversation with journalist Roland Martin “and he said, ‘When President Obama won, black folks stayed at [Grant] Park, still cheering and excited and celebrating. We celebrated inauguration for eight years while white folks in opposition built up their response.’ 

If so, then this new golden age of activism represents the response to the response. Sabaah Folayan, a 27-year-old activist whose acclaimed documentary “Whose Streets?” was filmed in Ferguson during the uprising there, says many in her generation have returned to the streets in sheer frustration.

“People my age — not me, personally, but a lot of us — were raised to believe that Dr. King won, that the Civil Rights Movement was the victory and that we are now in an equal society and all we have to do is keep our heads down, get an education, because racism was over.

“As it became more and more clear that these things weren’t true, as people like me started to grow up and get into the job field and go out into the world and realize how untrue these things were, I think now you’re seeing the backlash of that. Now you’re seeing this new generation getting old enough to really feel entitled to a political voice and feel entitled to speak for themselves.”

People her age, she says, “absolutely” feel as if they’ve been double crossed by history. “I’ve seen folks say flat out that they feel betrayed, that they feel let down, that they feel like the last generation has failed them by not preparing them to continue this fight. I think there absolutely is that sense of frustration. For a lot of people, there was really that strong sense that, ‘Wow, the world is really not as I thought it was.’ 

This, then, is not your father’s activism. As Black Lives Matter activist Brittany Packnett put it in the recent NBC documentary, “Hope and Fury: MLK, the Movement and the Media,” “Some of our tactics were still rooted in the traditions of the Civil Rights Movement. But given that this is the next chapter, things evolve. We weren’t going to sing ‘I Shall Not Be Moved’ and ‘We Shall Overcome.’ We’re going to play Lil’ Boosie.”

Lil’ Boosie, for the uninformed, is a Louisiana rapper. His 2006 hit, “Set It Off,” will never be mistaken for an anthem of nonviolent social change.

But though this is not your father’s activism, Rev. Al Sharpton, who, at 63, is old enough to be the father of almost every activist quoted here (Barber, 54, is the exception), says that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Or a new thing.

“You had young people in SNCC and Freedom Riders and lunch counter sit-ins in the early ’60s. Dr. King never rode a Freedom bus. So there’s nothing new about younger people having different tactics than those of us that may be clergy-based leaders. But they weren’t at each other’s throats, either.”

It is important, says Sharpton, for young activists to be policy driven — and to understand the importance of combining forces with those who have already been toiling in these fields. This lesson, too, is not new.

He recalls a conversation he once had with the late Kwame Ture who, back when he was a young firebrand known as Stokely Carmichael, “used” — his word — King to draw attention to the angrier and more aggressive Black Power movement of the late 1960s.

“He said, ‘Yeah, we rode him — [called him] ‘De Lawd,’ ‘Old School,’ even though he never was 40 years old.’ He says, ‘And when he got killed, Al, I went to his funeral and cried like I was one of his children. You know why? It never occurred to me: He never responded.’”

King, in other words, understood that there was nothing to be gained from an open, internecine fight between the movement’s youth and its elders. He refused to be drawn in. His eyes were on a different prize.

Fifty years later, King is one of the best known and least understood Americans of the last century. Or as his youngest child, Bernice, put it on Twitter a little over a month ago: “Someone tweeted to me that my father ‘didn’t offend people.’ At the time Daddy was killed, a poll reflected that he was the most hated man in America. Most hated. Many who quote him now & use him to deter justice would likely hate him too if they truly studied #MLK.”

Historian Dr. Michael K. Honey would concur. Honey, the author of “Going Down Jericho Road,” about King’s last campaign in Memphis, and the new “To The Promised Land,” about King’s lifelong fight for economic justice, notes that everyone quotes “that one part of the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech about colorblind capitalism, [and] that we should all be equal in the United States. And of course, most of us believe in that and want that.

“But usually people don’t go on to talk about what he was talking about in 1967 and 1968. He was always talking about the economic divide, racism against black workers, the inequities of American capitalism, the problem of racism, poverty and war. He was writing to Coretta King about those things in 1952 when they first met.”

Indeed, toward the end of his life, King was denouncing militarism and musing about the need for a guaranteed income for the poor and an economic system of what he called “democratic socialism.” Nor, says Honey, is it incidental that King’s last fight was on behalf of sanitation men who were seeking to form a union. Sadly, a half century later, “Unions have been practically destroyed in the United States — less than 10 percent in the private sector [are unionized], used to be 30 percent in King’s early days. Public employee unions have been the one saving grace, and that was the union that King helped support in Memphis.” Now, says Honey, they, too, face extinction.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the crowd of about 200,000 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where he delivered his I Have a Dream speech in 1963. HANDOUT The Washington Post/Courtesy of U.S. Marines

Martin Luther King was arrested in Albany, stoned in Cicero, physically assaulted in Selma, Birmingham and Chicago, shot in Memphis and condemned at various points by the White House, the FBI, the New York Times, young African Americans and Malcolm X, yet in someone’s memory — many someones’ memories, if truth be told — he “didn’t offend?”

That is more than a rose-tinted recollection. No, it is a rose-tinted lie, the inevitable byproduct of a nation that has long sought refuge in amnesia from the harsher and less flattering truths of its existence. So some of us make King vague and safe, a secular saint spouting “I have a dream” on old newsreel footage, and never mind what that dream actually was, or why it terrified as many people as it uplifted, and that it was so large and daunting the nation still falls short of it, half a century later.

Didn’t offend? The truth is, Martin Luther King offended large portions of America every single day of the 13 years he spent in the public eye. And America is better for it.

Which is why, as this city prepares to commemorate him on April 4, Sawyer and other activists have mixed emotions. “I’m torn,” she says. “I want to honor Dr. King, I really do, and I’m participating in some of the stuff.” But, she says, the important thing is not the speeches that are given on April 4, but the work that is done afterward. “What are we doing in Memphis on April 5th?”

It is, of course, a question much larger than Memphis. It encompasses the entire country, including a new generation just beginning to find its voice. What are we all doing?

“He gave us the model,” says Sharpton. “It’s our job to make it work in our environment and in our generation.”