On Monday, during the federal holiday set aside to celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr., a new generation of Americans tired of persistent racial inequality, discrimination, and police violence directed at specific segments of society will participate in actions designed to reclaim the legacy of the famous civil rights leader.
In a day of action, designated on social media sites as #ReclaimMLK, groups from around the country plan to forge the more radical and confrontational side of King’s social gospel and activism with the messaging and spirit of the ‘black lives matters” movement that sprouted nationwide in the wake of several high-profile killings of unarmed black men by police in 2014.
As a statement from Ferguson Action, one of the group’s behind the effort, explains:
Though King is often celebrated for his calls for racial unity as exemplified in his “I Have a Dream” speech, a much more radical current in his thinking, especially later in his life, was focused on the issues of structural poverty, the regressive impacts of militarism, and the economic injustice faced by all oppressed people denied access to education, jobs, and the other basic rights.
As Gabrielle Canon and Bryan Schatz write for Mother Jones on Sunday:
In a well-rounded piece exploring how the movement has evolved and where it might be heading, the New York Times‘ Tanzina Vega offered participants and organizers of recent protests an opportunity to articulate their motives while also exploring the concerns of those who share in the critique of racial injustice and police violence but remain skeptical of some of the tactics or lack of a clear organizing strategy among demonstrators.
From Vega’s reporting:
Acknowledging some of these tensions as well, Canon and Shatz spoke to several people about the possible ways forward for those who want to “reclaim MLK” while also forging their own brand of organizing and movement-building for the contemporary era.
Mother Jones spoke with Manuel Pastor, a professor of sociology and American studies at the University of Southern California, who studies how movements develop and impact society. He told Mother Jones that for these protests “to become a true movement,” as opposed to “just a moment” certain strategies must be undertaken. “A movement needs to have a grassroots space,” Pastor said. “It needs to have a broad vision of what might change, a pragmatic policy package announcing things that actually could make a difference, what could be done. It needs to have sort of a theory of what the government might do. It needs to be intersectional, connecting different strands of arguments and strands of movements so it can become a bit bigger than a single issue or a silo.”
Like Garrow, Pastor also invoked the relatively short lifespan of the Occupy movement, and said, “You don’t win without organization.”
Mother Jones also spoke with DeRay McKesson, an activist and one of the creators of a new website designed to help organize the various on-line and off-line efforts of the ‘black lives matter’ movement. McKesson discussed the new site, WetheProtesters.org, and also acknowledged some of the growing pains being experienced by a national movement largely organized without heirarchies, firm structures, or a clear set of shared demands.
“I think that what’s happening is a new form—a decentralized space with many people leading,” he said. “We are all growing and learning. So how do we link everybody up in a way that is meaningful, and a way that is about the work? We are now figuring out how to do that.”
What’s most important, McKesson continued, is to recognize that the calls for racial justice and an end to police violence are necessary parts of a broader agenda that includes specific policies—like increased wages and housing and education reform—geared towards achieving both economic and social justice.
“Police brutality sits in concert with so many other issues,” he explained. “It sits in concert with housing. Police target low-income communities that were intentionally made to be the way they are. I think we have an opportunity, in the long term, to talk about those things.”
“I think that we can win,” he told Mother Jones, resolutely. “But how we think about the win is really important. Being alive is a win, but it is not enough. Good schools are a win, but they are not enough. Housing is a win, but it is not enough. That matters. That way of imagining a better world as a series of wins that leads to the end of racism—that’s what will be transformative.”
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