As the rapper Tef Poe sharply pointed out at a St. Louis rally in October protesting the death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.: “This ain’t your grandparents’ civil rights movement.”
He’s right. Black Lives Matter is a motley-looking group to this septuagenarian grandmother, an activist in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Many in my crowd admire the cause and courage of these young activists but fundamentally disagree with their approach. Trained in the tradition of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., we were nonviolent activists who won hearts by conveying respectability and changed laws by delivering a message of love and unity. Black Lives Matter seems intent on rejecting our proven methods. This movement is ignoring what our history has taught.
The baby boomers who drove the success of the civil rights movement want to get behind Black Lives Matter, but the group’s confrontational and divisive tactics make it difficult. In the 1960s, activists confronted white mobs and police with dignity and decorum, sometimes dressing in church clothes and kneeling in prayer during protests to make a clear distinction between who was evil and who was good.
But at protests today, it is difficult to distinguish legitimate activists from the mob actors who burn and loot. The demonstrations are peppered with hate speech, profanity and guys with sagging pants who show their underwear.
The 1960s movement also had an innate respectability, because our leaders often were heads of the black church, as well. Unfortunately, church and spirituality are not high priorities for Black Lives Matter, and the ethics of love, forgiveness and reconciliation that empowered black leaders such as King and Nelson Mandela in their successful quests to win over their oppressors are missing from this movement.
The power of the spiritual approach was evident recently in the way relatives of the nine victims in the Charleston, S.C., church shooting responded at the bond hearing for Dylann Roof, the young white man who reportedly confessed to killing the church members “to start a race war.” One by one, the relatives stood in the courtroom, forgave the accused racist killer and prayed for mercy on his soul. As a result, not a single building was burned down. There was no riot or looting. There was only global admiration.
“Their response was solidly spiritual, one of forgiveness and mercy for the perpetrator,” the Rev. Andrew Young, a top King aide, told me in a recent telephone interview. “White supremacy is a sickness,” said Young, who also has served as a U.S. congressman, ambassador to the United Nations, and mayor of Atlanta. “You don’t get angry with sick people; you work to heal the system. If you get angry, it is contagious, and you end up acting as bad as the perpetrators.”
The loving, nonviolent approach is what wins allies and mollifies enemies. But what we have seen come out of Black Lives Matter is rage and anger — justifiable emotions, but questionable strategy. For months, it seemed that the movement hadn’t thought beyond that raw emotion, hadn’t questioned where it would all lead. I and other elders openly worried that, without a clear strategy and well-defined goals, Black Lives Matter could crash and burn out. Oprah Winfrey voiced that concern earlier this year, saying: “What I’m looking for is some kind of leadership to come out of this to say, ‘This is what we want. This is what has to change, and these are the steps that we need to take to make these changes, and this is what we’re willing to do to get it.’ ”
For her wise counsel, Winfrey became the target of tweets from young activists who denounced her as elitist and “out of touch,” which caused some well-meaning older sages to grit their teeth in silence. Now, nearly 10 months later, Black Lives Matter has finally come around, releasing a list of policy demands last week. If this young movement had embraced the well-meaning advice of its elders earlier, instead of responding with disdain, it could have spent recent months making headway with political leaders, instead of battling the disheartening images of violence that have followed its protests against police brutality in black neighborhoods.
This opportunity for mentorship is fleeting, evidenced by the recent deaths of civil rights movement giants Maya Angelou, Julian Bond and Louis Stokes. Seizing the wisdom of veteran civil rights activists will only help Black Lives Matter achieve its goals. The Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton would be the most obvious assets to Black Lives Matter, as civil rights leaders who have run for president and led political campaigns — but Black Lives Matter has welcomed neither.
Some defend the young activists. Speaking at a conference at Boston University’s Social Justice Institute in April, Pamela Lightsey, a lecturer on queer theology who chronicled the Ferguson protests, explained the disconnect between Black Lives Matter and the older civil rights cohort: Black Lives Matter activists “respect the leaders of another day, but they are not going to bow down to them. They can’t come into a protest march and demand a front seat or jump on the front lines when the cameras are on.”
She added that, while there are clergy participating in the Black Lives Matter protests, “the movement is not a black church initiative.”
Young doesn’t take Black Lives Matter’s dismissive attitude toward preachers and the movement’s lack of discipline lightly.
“In our movement, we were not only spiritual, we were thoughtful,” he said. “The reason our campaigns for change were successful in Montgomery and Birmingham was because they were undergirded by boycotts. We didn’t burn any businesses down. I don’t see that discipline here. We also trained people not to get angry because we knew our minds, not our emotions, were our most powerful weapons. We knew — to lose your wits was to lose your life.”
What Young is selling — discipline, respect for elders, restraint — is badly needed in the movement. But right now, Black Lives Matter isn’t buying.
Black Lives Matter “rejects the usual hierarchical style of leadership, with the straight black male at the top giving orders,” Lightsey said.
In this way, Black Lives Matter has improved on the previous generation. The new movement has embraced black women as leaders and was, in fact, founded by three black women. King’s model, by contrast, was sexist to the core.
Still, the movement has remained too narrow in its focus. I understand why, as a new movement, it has focused on black pain and suffering. But to win broader appeal, it must work harder to acknowledge the humanity in the lives of others. The movement loses sympathy when it shouts down those who dare to utter “all lives matter.” Activists insist that this slogan diverts attention from their cause of racial justice, saying it puts the spotlight on people whose lives have always mattered.
But we should remember the words of King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The civil rights movement was not exclusively a black movement for black people. It valued all human lives, even those of people who worked against us. I can’t believe that the life of a murdered white police officer, or an Asian child sold into sex slavery or a hungry family in Appalachia are lives that don’t matter.
In a sense, even the slogan “Black Lives Matter” is too broad, because the movement overlooks black-on-black homicides, the leading cause of death for black males between ages 15 and 34. That horrific fact remains off the movement’s radar, for fear that it puts black men in a negative light. So which black lives really matter?
Admittedly, baby boomers like me can be too judgmental, expecting a certain reverence for our past journey. But it is critical that these two generations find a middle ground. To reach their common goal, baby boomers and millennials must overcome their differences and pair the experience of the old with the energy of the young to change a criminal justice system that has historically abused both.
Xavier Johnson, a 32-year-old pastor in Dayton, Ohio, who monitors the movement for his doctoral dissertation, argues that boomers should do more to fix the generational misunderstanding. To help me gain insight, he referred me to a popular song. “Every movement has its own soundtrack,” he told me. “One of ours is by rapper Kendrick Lamar, who sings ‘We Gon’ Be Alright.’ ”
So I listened to the song, expecting it would be as uplifting as “We Shall Overcome.” I was terribly disappointed. The beat was too harsh; the lyrics were nasty and misogynistic.
“Let me tell you about my life / Painkillers only put me in the twilight / Where pretty p...y and Benjamin is the highlight.”
Instead of imparting understanding, the song was a reminder of the generation gap that afflicts civil rights activism, and the struggle it is going to take to overcome it.
Barbara Reynolds is an ordained minister and the author of six books. She wrote this article for the Washington Post.