A New Generation of Black Activism

Then Trayvon Martin was killed. Protests sprang up all across the country, and his name became a rallying cry. Trayvon's death ignited something durable in a considerable number of black youth. Whatever apathy had existed before was replaced by the urge to act, to organize and to fight. Millennials were ready to build their movement.

The demise of the Black Panther Party in the mid-1970s left a void in black political organizing. The Panthers weren't without problems (the sexist nature of their leadership was a big one), but they represented the last gasps of a national black organizing that combined radical political education, direct action, youth engagement and community services. In the years since, racial-justice groups have struggled to effect change as profound as they managed to achieve during the heyday of the civil-rights and Black Power movements. The Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network is mostly visible to the extent that Sharpton is able to leverage his own platform and personality for the causes he cares about. The same is true of the Rev. Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow PUSH Coalition. Until Benjamin Jealous took over as president in 2008, the NAACP — the nation's oldest civil-rights organization — was battling perceptions of irrelevance. Under Jealous's leadership, the NAACP changed course, but the question lingered as to whether it was equipped to fight the new challenges faced by black America. The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement has existed since 1993 without much fanfare; the National Hip-Hop Political Convention, started in 2004, fizzled. "The times we live in," Carruthers said, "call for a resurgence of national black-liberation organizing."

This past May, I traveled to Chicago for the "Freedom Dreams, Freedom Now!" conference, hosted by a number of organizations, including BYP100, on the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago. The conference was intended as an "intergenerational, interactive gathering" of scholars, artists and activists commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer and discussing contemporary social-justice organizing. The opening plenary featured a keynote address by Julian Bond, a co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and former board chair of the NAACP. He presented a history of Freedom Summer, the SNCC-led movement to register voters and get black people to the polls in Mississippi, before a premiere screening of the PBS documentary Freedom Summer, directed by Stanley Nelson.

But the aim of the conference wasn't just to reminisce. It was a precursor to Freedom Side, a collective that includes members of BYP100, the Dream Defenders and United We Dream, an immigrant-youth-led organization, as well as more established groups like the NAACP and AFL-CIO. Before the conference, as part of the Freedom Summer celebration, the Dream Defenders hosted "freedom schools" throughout Florida, talking to young people about criminalization, mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline. Voter registration drives were also held across the country.

The day after the conference ended, BYP100 hosted an organizer-training event at the University of Chicago. Early on, the attendees were split into two groups, and the two sides engaged each other in a call-and-response chant that referenced historical greats like Nat Turner, Angela Davis, Ida B. Wells, Mumia Abu-Jamal and Fred Hampton. But even as they paid homage to their history in song, these young activists had their eyes on the future. Members led sessions on personal narratives in organizing, how to handle interactions with police officers, and building political power.

"I think we're seeing different types of organizing [taking] shape, and I think we're going to continue to see that — especially with the evolution of social media and technology," said Dante Barry, deputy director of the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice. The group was founded in 2012 by Daniel Maree, who is responsible for creating a Change.org petition calling for a criminal investigation into Trayvon Martin's death. It collected over 2 million signatures — at the time, the fastest-growing petition ever on the Internet. Barry, 26, joined the Million Hoodies Movement in October 2013. He points out that if not for social media, Trayvon Martin's death could have languished in obscurity.

While the audiences for these new groups may not be larger than the older ones' — the Dream Defenders has more than 27,000 Twitter followers; the NAACP has over 74,000 — the newer groups use Twitter to hear from, not just talk to, their members. The Dream Defenders hosts Twitter discussions about its key issues, including gun violence, the criminalization of black youth and the prison-industrial complex. Community cultivation is vital as these organizations take on the challenge of long-term movement building. In February, Agnew and others put together a Tumblr called "Blacked Out History," featuring members' artwork. "We were born out of [the Trayvon Martin] murder, but that didn't become our focus," Agnew said.

Trayvon Martin's killing deserved all of the attention it eventually received, but elevating Trayvon as a singular martyr risks portraying the struggle of this new generation of activists as the exclusive domain of black men. That would repeat the missteps of past generations. While black women were often responsible for most of the practical work involved in organizing, they were poorly represented in leadership positions, and their concerns were all too frequently sidelined.

Carruthers sees this dynamic playing out today. "A lot of people rallied across the country in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin," she observed. "Not as many rallied around the killing of Renisha McBride." McBride, age 19, was killed on November 2, 2013, in Dearborn Heights, Michigan. Looking for help after being injured in a car crash, she appeared on the porch of 54-year-old Theodore Wafer, who opened his front door and shot her. Wafer is white; his defense team argued that he believed McBride was breaking into his house. A rally was held that weekend, with local residents calling for Wafer's arrest, but the level of outrage and media attention didn't come close to what it was for Trayvon Martin.

"That's a reality," Carruthers said, "and as an organization invested in freedom and justice for all black people, we are equally as committed to elevating the stories of black women and girls." To this end, BYP100 uses a "queer, feminist/womanist and economic-justice approach" to consider issues from the position of how they affect the people most marginalized in their community. It's a deliberate rebuke to the charismatic male leadership that centers on the concerns of black men.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, exploded after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer on August 9. Brown, who would have started college the following Monday, became the latest unarmed black person to be killed by police. In the wake of his death, and with little information forthcoming from the Ferguson Police Department, residents took to the streets, first for a vigil, later in protest. The underlying crisis — economic and educational disparities, the lack of political representation, constant harassment by the police — boiled over. Nights of unrest followed, characterized by the aggressive presence of a militarized police force as well as some rioting and looting, as the nation once again came face to face with its centuries-long tradition of criminalizing black bodies. In response to the shooting, BYP100 asked supporters to submit videos describing how they have been profiled or harassed by police. "Beyond our current frustration and anger, our memory hums as our ancestors call out to us. We will redeem their suffering through collective work for liberation," the group said in a statement. "Stoicism, respectability politics and piecemeal measures of progress are not working." Here, perhaps, is the new movement's first big test.

    • Mychal Denzel Smith
    • Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and blogger for TheNation.com. As a freelance writer, social commentator, and mental health advocate, his work has been seen online in outlets such as the Atlantic, Salon, Al Jazeera English, Gawker, the Guardian, Huffington Post, the Root, the Grio, and GOOD.<...

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