While promoting the New York premiere of Selma, the 2014 historical drama chronicling the life of Martin Luther King Jr, producer and actress for the film, Oprah Winfrey, had a few choice words for protesters who’ve come out against police brutality and the recent killings of unarmed African Americans. Speaking with theGrio, Winfrey compared recent protests to the civil rights era, suggesting Selma could serve as a historical learning lesson.
I really think that this film can teach people a lot, because what this film says is it’s been done. It was done. Y’all are not the first to do it … the first to have an idea … the first to want to protest … the first to be upset. We didn’t even have the right as citizens to vote in this country, and because of that you had Martin Luther King as a leader joining with his band of brothers with disciplined, rigorous, peaceful protests, and they had a goal and intention in mind. You just can’t march and not know what you’re marching for.
While there are definitely parallels between the civil rights era and the protests of today, there are also stark contrasts between the two. In Winfrey’s own critique, she explicitly states the Civil Rights era was largely attributed to MLK, alongside his male counterparts. What is so unique about today’s civil rights movement is the emerging leaders that are paving the way. Their intentions and goals are clear. Their execution is disciplined. Their planning, rigorous. They’re women.
This Isn’t Your Grandparent’s Movement.
“Yes it’s been done before, and yes it’s still vital,” says SF Millions March organizer Thea Matthews, 27. “We need to continually supply social pressure to create the social change we want to see. Addressing institutionalized racism, police brutality, and the utter disregard of black and brown lives–people are tired of it. Are we just supposed to stop? How will we feel assured that something’s going to happen?
Matthews partnered with Etecia Brown, 24, a San Francisco native currently living in New York, to organize SF and Oakland Millions Marches in solidarity with NYC Millions, the Dec. 13 march where over 60,000 New Yorkers took to city streets demanding justice for the victims of police brutality.
Millions March was co-organized by Synead Nichols, 23, and Umaara Iynaas Elliot, 19 the morning after Darren Wilson wasn’t indicted in the August 9 killing of 18 year old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
“After a night of protesting following the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, Synead created the Facebook event page [the morning of November 25th at 1 AM.] After the second night of the page being up, we already had over 1,400 people RSVP. We then posted if anyone would like to help us organize this, as well as reaching out to a few organizations like Ferguson Action, Black Lives Matter, Million Hoodies, and Justice League NYC,” recalled Elliot.
“The powerful thing about this movement is that people nationwide, and even internationally, are protesting in solidarity with Ferguson and New York City,” she continued. “Organizers from cities like Oakland, Boston, Denver, and Los Angeles reached out to us after seeing the Millions March NYC event page and wanted to organize a Millions March in their cities.”
Realizing there wasn’t a march organized on the west coast, Brown created a Millions March Facebook page for Oakland and San Francisco. She reached out to friends in the Bay, and was introduced to Matthews, president of SF City College Black Student Union. They only had a week of planning leading up to the event, but Brown, Matthews, along with fellow organizers planned relentlessly over the phone, through Skype, Google hangout, social networking sites and on Google Doc spreadsheets.
“Everyone was eager to jump on board. They respected my vision of a peaceful march, says Brown. ” I thought it was important for the Bay Area to show solidarity with the Millions March taking place in New York and Washington [D.C.].”
The Evolution of Revolution
It’s no surprise that most of today’s emerging leaders are younger than MLK when he delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech on the Lincoln Memorial steps in 1969 (he was 34.) Thanks in much part to technological advances, particularly, the role of social media, the shift to collective activism has emerged.
Alicia Garza, 33, had no idea her Facebook status would go viral. But it did. After the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013, Garza took to social media to express her discontent over Martin being blamed for his own death.
“I was looking at the reactions to the verdict from my friends on Facebook, and I was noticing some things that felt problematic. First, I was seeing a lot of resignation around the verdict–people saying things like “We knew he would never be held accountable–why are you surprised?” And then following that, I saw a lot of things masquerading as next steps–the full range from ‘That’s why we need our kids to pull up their pants’ to ‘That’s why we need better parenting’ or ‘That’s why people need to get out there and vote.’ But most of the reactions I saw, from Black people and non-Black people, mostly blamed Black people for our conditions. It was infuriating to me.”
“I posted a love letter to Black people, with some stern admonishments to those who would seek to blame Black people in any way for a racist system that we did not create,” she continued. “Somewhere in there I said “Black people, I love you, I love us, and our lives matter. Black lives matter.” And my homegirl Patrisse Cullors Brignac in Los Angeles, re-posted it and then put a hashtag in front. Suddenly, people all over the place were reposting it. And then we started seeing it in the streets.”
No Longer In The Shadows
In 1992, Rebecca Walker, daughter of author and activist Alice Walker, coined the term ‘Third Wave Feminism” in an article for Ms. Magazine. The third wave marked the shift of women’s rights movements in the U.S, previously reserved to white heterosexual women, inclusive to all women, particularly queers and non-whites.
When asked her thoughts on female leadership roles in activist movements, Matthews, who also led the Dec 24 event Queers Come Out for Black Lives Matter concluded:
“Women are no more in the shadows of leaders, we are the leaders. It’s not so much men vs women, its a matter of women standing up–no one’s in the shadows. It’s a complete call to action. Previously women couldn’t be leaders. To be Black used to mean to be a Black man-a way of [identifying] masculinity. For women not to stand behind anyone anymore shows a solid shift. We’re no longer invisible.”