From Selma to Ferguson: A 21st Century Movement is Here

In a recent interview with GRITtv, renowned public intellectual, activist and MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky provided a very cogent description of American society in saying, “this is a very racist society, I mean, it’s pretty shocking…” Chomsky’s comments were in response to host Laura Flanders’ question about the prospects of a broad anti-racist social-justice movement growing out of the conflict in Ferguson.

Chomsky, his life dedicated to activism, regularly travels across America. Although he believes such a movement is certainly possible, the challenges ahead are daunting. Notably Chomsky reflects on the fragmentation of social justice groups in America that often function with an a-historical view and tenuous coalitions. Even if you aren’t a card carrying ‘activist’ it’s not hard to see what Professor Chomsky is alluding to: we as a generation are undoubtedly enraged, anxious for change, but even if you look at the current 24-hour news cycle, we don’t build up, we consistently move on.

So with this in mind, what is really and truly necessary for a broad anti-racist social-justice movement to succeed in the United States? What would it look like? In the past, the leadership of Medgar Evers, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Stokely Carmichael, Malcom X, Fred Hampton, Fannie Lou Hamer and countless others led the way. Some espoused values of non-violent resistance—an extremely effective tool. Others advocated for raising black consciousness. Some supported radical economic reform. But all were people rooted in community, cooperation and self-determination for the unequivocal redress of racism against people of African descent in America. So what must bring us together today, aside from failures to convict police officers or even painful footage of a man gasping for air moments before his death? It’s the same as before—community, outrage and action with a few new 21st century tools.

Forging community is arguably our greatest challenge and perhaps an existing medium for collective understanding is film. Yes film. Film, by nature, is a passive experience. However, ironically, as watching video becomes more and more personalized via laptops, cell phones and tablets; the notion of seeing a film and sharing it is increasingly subversive. The emotional experience of watching a person die on your Facebook feed by police violence can literally and figuratively be shared. Furthermore, perhaps the film you are viewing can provide historical insight into modern tensions. Consider the undeniable popularity of documentary film. In the past ten to fifteen years, documentary film has exploded. How many of us have made sense of the Iraq War, the fast food industry, class disparities, Katrina, or the financial crisis by watching a great documentary?

Like documentary film, narrative features have provided a new way to specifically and intimately talk about race. How different would current discourse on race be if 12 Years a Slave (2013) were never made and Lupita Nyong’o never won the Oscar? After seeing the new film Selma from director Ava DuVernay, I am completely convinced that film, may well be our way back to each other—towards community. Actor David Oyelowo channels the gravitas of Dr. King with such compassion and magnetism that his career is surely going north. There are times of such electric oration by Oyelowo about matters of state violence that Dr. King might as well be talking about this moment. Every supporting actor brings their best to support a palpable sense of movement, a march towards justice. Furthermore, the film recognizes the enormous influence of women on Dr. King’s activism from his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) to Mahalia Jackson (Ledisi Young) to Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint) to Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson from Dear White People). Also, larger than life black male characters grace the screen like Bayard Rustin (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), Andrew Young (André Holland) and James Bevel (Common). After viewing this well-researched, artfully composed, and superbly acted film about the road to achieving the Voting Rights Act of 1965, I am sure community discussion will ensue.

Outrage is a difficult energy to manage. Often, in those early moments of outrage, riots and violence can be a common, but a fundamentally distracting outcome. However, once we overcome that urge, we are usually left with a seething demand for change. A sense of community penetrated by rage gets results. Results come with the 2014 Black Friday Boycott—in reaction to the Mike Brown grand jury decision. Underreported by mainstream media, it arguably contributed to nationwide sales down a significant 11 percent or about $7 billion—not too shabby. It results in global solidarity from Palestine to Tokyo to Australia over the victimization of black people in Ferguson. It results in protests across the country with a collective power not seen in decades. It even allows us to take some suspect black leaders off a shaky pedestal like Bill Cosby who is accused of numerous sexual assaults. I remember when Mr. Cosby came to my college circa 2004 and proceeded to tirade against the utter uselessness of my generation in a manner so discouraging, that I lost all respect for him then and there.

Malcolm X who is unfortunately remembered in dominant culture as a vengeful separatist was a brilliant manipulator of rage. In the 2011 book Malcom X: A Life of Reinvention the late Manning Marable developed a Pulitzer Prize winning work that humanized the late Malcolm Little as a man subjected to extreme racism, of devout faith, admirable chastity to his wife the late, great Betty Shabazz, and of a transformational intellect unparalleled by many. Malcom X is credited for saying, “usually when people are sad, they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change.” Great thinkers from feminist bell hooks to the 14th Dalai Lama can also, explain the value of anger—so use it.

Action is the third and final tool for our 21st Century movement. Aside from numerous local protesters and activists, groups like Dream Defenders and Color of Change (CoC) are part of a new movement to galvanize against systemic racism through organizing, information sharing, online petitions, and various anti-racist campaigns. While Anti-PIC activists like Angela Davis, Harry Belafonte, Michelle Alexander and Mumia Abu-Jamal have been leading the charge against criminal injustice, mass outrage has been a missing ingredient. In turn mass action fueled by mass outrage is what creates new, better legislation. Therefore, our current moment is ripe for change. Martin Luther King, Jr. well understood this formula and used it to enact the Civil Rights Act (1964) towards anti-discrimination/desegregation and The Voting Rights Act (1965) towards comprehensive voting rights. As a sad indication of modern racism, the Voting Rights Act was gutted just last year by a conservative Supreme Court allowing a number of states to enforce discriminatory voter ID laws and other acts of voter suppression.

As reported by CoC, Congress recently passed a law to collect data on police shooting for better legislation. This renewed law (first attempted in 2000 before it lapsed in 2006) came just days after more than 150 black Congressional staffers staged a walkout in protest of police violence with their hands up. President Obama publically voiced his concerns about police violence after the grand jury fallout over Mike Brown and Eric Garner. In early December the President requested $263 million to fund police body cameras and training. He also stated in an exclusive interview with BET that protests are a necessary step towards legal change. Although, Attorney General Eric Holder will be stepping down from his post in coming months, he has been committed to investigating claims of racially motivated violence from the suspicious death of Texan Alfred Wright to police practices in Ferguson. Certainly, none of these legal victories or legal failures can happen without mass action or inaction, respectively.

Community. Outrage. Action. This is the holy trinity of a sustainable movement for social change. Considering the universe of competing interests on our time and energy in modern times, the above outline is our best chance to truly impress upon this nation that black lives matter. America has a long and rich history of white supremacy and gun violence against black people. In fact, the suppression of black self-determination serves to distance all citizens from true equity via the guarantee of white supremacy as the key toward economic prosperity. And yet a recent review of income inequality in America presents a grim picture of increasing economic inequality with the top 1% enjoying 95% of income gains between 2009 and 2012. A recent UC Berkley study goes as far to claim that current inequality is at its highest levels since 1928, just before the Great Depression. While affluent private investors benefit from a bloated prison system akin to slavery, the middle class shrivels and the promise of white supremacy provides little other than a promise. And yet, what might this nation look like if the most influential, yet degraded and neglected among us continue to rise up? Get out there and find out.


Agunda Okeyo is a writer, producer, filmmaker and activist born in Nairobi and raised between New York City and the Kenyan Capital. She called New York City home for more than 20 years and proudly calls herself a Pan-African New Yorker. Okeyo understands and writes from a global perspective on politics, culture, film, and comedy. In 2015, she plans to publish her first book on her experience with systemic inequality in the United States, primarily critical of formal education.