What has BLM Learned from the Civil Rights Movement?
by Courtney Scales
If the philosophies of late civil rights icons, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X had created a love child, it would have been the Black Lives Matter Movement. And their offspring, recognized internationally for its global humanitarian efforts, has been determined to blaze a trail of its own from the very beginning. Civil Rights era critics assert that by rejecting the model of centralized leadership utilized before them, BLM runs the risk of becoming less rhetorically effective in the long run; however, this rests on the false assumption that BLM is responding to an identical rhetorical situation as their predecessors.
In this paper, I argue that comparisons of the two movements are incorrect in nature due to a shift in exigence that occurred between the 1960s and the new millennium. The social injustice and racial inequities faced by Black Americans today have become more visible to audiences due to the prolific use of technology and social media, which has in turn marked a transition in the “case of the negro.” The escalation from that of civil rights to one focused increasingly on human rights violations garnered the attention of audiences on the worldstage. BLM stands to reach its legislative objectives while simultaneously fulfilling the prophecy laid out by Malcolm X in his 1964 speech “The Ballot or the Bullet.” Further, I assert that BLM is pioneering in its own right for the rhetorical choices it has made by encouraging the use of modern technology as a dog whistle to gain global allies, and as a picket sign to promote a rhetoric of deliberate inclusivity and advocate for the rights of a hidden minority within Black America, the LGBTQ+ community.
The Need for Escalation
Those familiar with Malcolm X and his powerful; speech “The Ballot or the Bullet,” delivered at the Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland, Ohio, will concur that his words sparked the first rhetorical anomaly of BLM. Malcolm X may have been viewed as a divisive figure in some respects, but few deny the fact that he was spot on in recognizing the political significance of 1964 for Blacks. X’s goal was to persuade the Black community to leverage their coveted swing vote as a tool to advance the civil rights agenda. In the speech, he sketched a blueprint outlining what was “next” for the negro, most notably proposing a transition from civil to human rights. He reasoned that by marching for civil rights, the negro was “barking up the wrong tree,” appealing to a corrupt government who was “responsible for the oppression, exploitation, and degradation of Black people” (The Ballot or the Bullet). He labeled these endeavors “fruitless and counterproductive,” instead offering an alternative; elevating the case of “the negro” to the national stage is exactly what BLM has done.
In “The Matter of Black Lives,” an article published five years ago in the New Yorker, BLM was profiled for the purpose of unpacking the philosophy behind their rhetoric. The author writes that BLM is often described as “not [being] your grandfather’s civil-rights movement,” a statement that may prove to be misleading if taken only at face value (Cobb). However, distinguishing audiences understand the importance of context and exigence when surveying the rhetorical astuteness of a movement. Statements structured in the form of comparison should be perceived as sentiments of reverence, not a rhetorical analysis. Still, by acknowledging the passing of the baton from one generation to the next, 1960’s era advocates who tackled the so-called “negro issue” with vigor concede that after the death of central figure Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the movement that relied on the ethos of his name and reputation eventually died as well. Progress has been slow for Black Americans in the areas of social and economic gain. And the problem of violence against Black bodies in this country is about as novel as a loaf of sliced bread. It follows that one must perceive the struggle for what it is: a generational curse that can only be solved using our collective efforts.
In many ways, BLM is recognized for not what it has in common with the 1960’s CRM but for its differences. The designation of being like its grandfather further reinforces the change in tone and tenor the new generation brings to the cause. Upward mobility for Blacks had already been paid in full in a way that no other group in America has. Unfortunately, the blood, sweat, and tears of our ancestors during slavery and the diligent strategizing of those who marched on Washington have not solidified our value in this country. The rhetorical situation, or set of circumstances that birthed the Civil Rights and BLM movements, are not one in the same, no matter how closely related they may appear to be. The elements of time, space, and political context must be considered in order to paint an accurate portrait of the exigence that has demanded a need for the birth of BLM to begin with.
BLMs exigence came in the form of a young black man senselessly murdered by a White aggressor that our legal system failed to hold accountable despite the blood visible on his hands. The high-profile lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 and the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012 exemplify the shift taking place in the tone of the modern day advocate and the new rhetorical situation it presents. In 1955, “the negro” was still relegated to sitting at the back of the city bus and drinking from separate water fountains than its White American counterpart. Blacks felt the tide moving backwards, dragging anyone it could take with it.
Consequently, the new millennial negro, seemingly spoiled by the abolition of Jim Crow laws and armed with the political astuteness inherited from its elders, refused to let Martin, a figure who became the metaphorical stand-in for any Black American male, and the circumstances surrounding his death, senselessly die together. What seemed like a sudden shift in tone for many Americans who had been lulled asleep by the monotone hum of White supremacy was the sound of Blacks and non-Blacks around the world uniting to recite: “Black Lives Matter!” Without the addition of any grammatical modifiers to qualify the statement, this simple mantra sparked outrage from conservative audiences and a heated debate across our nation ensued questioning what about it was so “radical” to begin with. BLM moved the global community outside of its comfort zone. The strategies of the 1960’s CRM, although radical during its time, are at times antiquated in this new rhetorical situation. BLM is tackling a more ferocious beast: any agent (individual or collective), organization, or system that compromises the sanctity of Black lives. Therefore, stronger weaponry, or rhetoric, is prescribed.
The Role of Technology
Advances in technology and the clever use of social media have contributed to the rhetorical efficacy of BLM. Having a means to distribute footage of violence against black bodies on our mobile devices has elevated the case of civil rights to the “world stage,” making it a human rights issue, just as Malcolm X predicted some forty years ago (The Ballot or the Bullet). Ask anyone who tunes into the evening news, receives alerts on their phone, or scrolls through their social media feed: it is impossible to be unaware of the violence in America. Everyone has the ability to judge these atrocious acts of brutality for themselves, which has led to global acknowledgement of the human rights infractions against Black bodies, attracting “international allies” to BLMs humanitarian efforts. The ability to consume digital media that makes us participants in these killings makes us have a stake in their outcome of the victims’ lives. Witnessing acts of physical harm inflicted upon members of the Black community has invaded our global psyche and provoked a visceral response.
BLM utilized these advances in technology to connect, interact, and mobilize the citizens of the twenty-first century world to keep up with human rights violations involving the Black male. We are witnessing the arbitrary slaying of Black bodies across the country by law enforcement agents and private citizens in real-time. Modern technology and the jewels of hindsight inherited from the trials and errors of our Civil Rights era ancestors have created within this generation a strange benefactor. Audiences have a sense of being the unwitting participants in these events that call us to action. Therefore, arguments that BLM has no “clear strategy” are non-starters for the astute surveyor who is willing to acknowledge that the introduction of social media has been a game changer for activism in general, where videos can be live streamed and uploaded in moments. Today, in our voyeuristic society, it is possible for BLM to focus on the broader goal of human rights because they have the capacity to do so.
BLM’s rhetoric is not restricted or stifled by a lack of outreach, as technology has created a platform that anyone can use. Take for example this Birmingham Times collage featuring two stills taken more than four decades apart (Figure 1). The black and white on the left is an archive photo of protestors marching in their Sunday’s best, one woman holding up a picket sign that wields the message: “Police Brutality Must Stop!” The protestors are relying on, and practically begging for, the news media to see them. In stark contrast, the photo on the right reveals a shift in the rhetorical tide, communicating just the opposite. Taken at a 2016 solidarity protest held at Kelly Ingram Park, the central figure in the frame, a Black woman wearing a long dress has a sign resting at her feet.
The legibility and position of her poster is inconsequential because of the pink device in her hands. Smartphones having been employed by modern activists as a public relations tool, also serves as a digital picket sign. This protestor has hers aimed directly at the police station headquarters, and so do the protestors surrounding her. A picture is said to be worth a thousand words, and this one not only says “see us!” It’s shouting back, “we see you, too!” Today, it is easier than ever to receive and spread news due to the proliferation of modern technology which allows users to connect and mobilize from even the furthest corners of the world all from their smartphone. BLM doesn’t have to create moments for rhetoric. Rhetorical situations are created for the organization by its audience. Incidents of injustice and unprovoked violence against Black bodies captured by civilians on their smartphones and uploaded to social media platforms. BLM simply responds to these rhetorical situations, and uses technology to engage, and organize their allies to emphasize that Black lives are still not seen as valuable in society. This generates plenty of pathos with new allies on the world stage, their target audience.
The Sustainability Flaw of Centralized Leadership and the Silent Debate
In addition to criticizing BLMs lack of strategy, the movement’s lack of “leadership” was mentioned as a rhetorical flaw in the article entitled “What Black Lives Matter Can Learn from the Civil Rights Movement,” (Birmingham Times). This criticism needs to be reframed as a deliberate choice that has contributed to BLMs rhetorical efficacy. BLM has abandoned the assumption that a “centralized leadership figure” is an essential element to be rhetorically effective because that model has already proven itself unsustainable (Cobb).
The name Martin Luther King Jr. became synonymous with the 1960’s CRM, eventually competing for attention with its primary objectives. It can also be argued that his physical death attenuated the movement vigor and rhetorical efficacy. This is one major rhetorical deviation from the 1960’s CRM that has proven advantageous for BLM. Setting up a straw man for society to pluck apart is counterproductive and dangerous. Any gains made in ethos are quickly depleted at even the hint of impropriety from leadership figures, even if they have had impeccable character in the past. This can jeopardize the integrity of everything else associated with the larger body of work created by the movement.
By “eschewing” centralized leadership roles, BLM has also been able to avoid the trap of religious doctrine which restricted the 1960’s CRM’s scope of advocacy (The Matter of Black Lives). BLM is not directly affiliated with any religion and has no designated political party association which allows for more variation in their outreach. Religious figures, specifically leaders in the Black church, often carry with them a dogma that can be alienating to members within the very group that they are advocating for. Oftentimes, centralized leadership figures are incapable of living up to the moral standards for which they have the God given authority to condemn others. BLM stands firm on the tenet of following the message, not the man, which has preserved the integrity of the organization. By nature, humans are fallible. Principles, however, are not.
This article also alluded to a dissent from the limiting views that alienated segments of the Black community from being participants in and benefactors of the 1960s Civil Rights advocacy. These limited views shunned those who engaged in homosexual behaviors and were based on the Christian beliefs of the Black church. Thus, they were presuppositions that underscored the rhetoric of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was a beloved minister in the South. As a member of a Black church community, my autopsy of the 1960’s CRM offers an explanation why BLM has abandoned the centralized leadership model: the Achilles’ heel of 1960’s rhetoric was the inability of its leadership to deliberately acknowledge marginalized members within the Black community.
In turn, BLM’s strength is its ability to do so, which is demonstrated by their liberal application of Kimberle Crenshaw’s intersectionality theory. Crenshaws’ theory acknowledges the “intergroup” differences in identity politics and has opened a space for the inclusion of the Black LGBTQ community, specifically transgender women, in the fight for Black lives (Mapping the Margins 1243). Accordingly, Black trans women have two identity markers that make them a target for hate and violence: they are both Black and transgender. BLM also acknowledges the intersectionality of Black women who are often discriminated against for their gender and their Blackness. These markers make Black trans women and Black women assigned female at birth increasingly vulnerable to violence in society. Crenshaw argues that it is “problematic” to ignore the intersecting identity “markers” that exist within marginalized groups because it creates “tension… within and among” group members (1242). It is also problematic because it leaves these subgroups increasingly vulnerable to exploitation and “efforts to politicize” experiences of violence (Crenshaw 1242). BLM has recognized and mitigated this blind spot in their own rhetoric by advocating for the rights of all Blacks. Deliberately making reference to groups within the whole, referred to as deliberate inclusivity, is a powerful tool for those who have the designation of intersectional identity markers.
Even today, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. maintains relevance in the push for the social and economic equality of Blacks in our society, the ideas and practices he used have been updated to reflect the modern day. In a society that has only become more violent over the years, it deeply resonates with modern advocates that human mortality cannot be taken for granted. Therefor safety, necessity, and time have proven that to be rhetorically effective, movements cannot afford to fall into the trap of centralized leadership and must be built to weather many generations. This was made clear after the minister’s untimely assasination in April 1964, which arguably attenuated the efficacy of the Civil Rights Movement, delaying the attainment of our collective ends.
In today’s tight social economy, there is no room for misunderstanding, it is more imperative now than ever for citizens and activists alike to understand why human rights for Black Americans cannot be achieved using a CRM era model of activism. After the assassination of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X, followers were left scrambling for guidance. BLM’s strategy of following the message and not the man has served them well, protecting participants while simultaneously helping to spread information. BLM has generated logos from the seemingly endless reel of news footage depicting a society blinded by its own indifference to the nuances involved in race and the over-policing of Black Americans. Avoiding their predecessor’s unsustainable rhetorical strategy has paved the way for BLM to promote a rhetoric of deliberate inclusivity, expanding the width of their advocacy efforts to include the LGBTQ+ community, a once overlooked minority sub-group within Black America.
Birmingham Times. “What Black Lives Matter Can Learn from the Civil Rights Movement.” BirminghamTimes.com. 14 Jul. 2016. http://www.birminghamtimes.com/2016/07/whatblack-lives-matter-can-learn-f m-th e-civil-rights-movement/.
Clayton, Dewey M. “Black Lives Matter and the Civil Rights Movement: A Comparative Analysis of Two Social Movements in the United States.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 49, no. 5, July 2018, pp. 448–480.
Cobb, Jelani. “The Matter of Black Lives,” The New Yorker, 16 Mar. 2016.
Crenshaw, Kimberlee. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review, Vol. 43, No. 6, Jul., 1991, pp. 1241- 1299.
Hesford, Wendy. “Surviving Recognition and Racial In/justice.” Philosophy & Rhetoric, vol 48, 4, 2015, pp. 536-560.
Richardson, Elaine and Ragland, Alice. “StayWoke: The Language and Literacies of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement.” Community Literacy Journal, vol. 12, no. 2, 2018, pp. 27-56.
X, Malcolm. “The Ballot or the Bullet,” (1964) EdChange, http://www.edchange.org/multicultural/speeches/malcolm_x_ballot.html
Courtney Scales recently graduated from Barry University, earning a Bachelor of Arts in English with a Specialization in Professional Writing. In Fall 2022, she will be attending Nova Southeastern University where she has been accepted into their M.A. Composition, Rhetoric, and Digital Media program. But in the meantime, she’s enjoying creative and freelance writing opportunities, spending time with her family, and preparing to teach students in the Miami-Dade County Public school system.
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