August 15, 2007
As a student of movement history, I am often frustrated by how my generation perceives the powerful work of the civil rights generation. While many of us–especially us young activists–are keenly aware of the historic efforts of groups like Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Black Panthers or Students for a Democratic Society, our perception of the civil rights movement has been tainted by “superhero” narratives that tend to focus on the actions of great individuals.
Far too often our history is taught from the perspective that change is made only by strong primary leaders. Just think about it–when was the last time you saw a movie, read a book or even watched a PBS documentary that wasn’t overwhelmingly told from the perspective of the individual? Yeah, people’s histories exist, but more times than not we study histories of individuals and their ideas and actions. (For a while it was only white males that made history, but as more women and people of color have entered the academy, our historical superheroes have become more diverse.)
The superhero narrative especially dominates our memory of the civil rights movement. Partly because of the powerful iconic images that have been captured by television cameras. It’s hard for us GenX-ers and Millenials to believe it, but the mid-20th century was the first time that history could be documented by capturing moving images.
But we must never forget that the people in front of the camera were not the only change agents during the era. If it were not for the collective efforts of the day’s countless, faceless organizers, neither Dr. King nor Malcolm X would have had such a powerful bully pulpit. After all, for every strong primary leader, there were hundreds of secondary leaders who made sure that people turned up for actions and that the events ran smoothly.
Of course, I am not saying this to diminish the great work of individuals like King or Malcolm X. In fact, without their courageous leadership, the important victories of the movement would not have been possible. These two great leaders stepped up and voiced their opposition to the injustices of the day at a time when both assassination and McCarthyism had silenced many of the era’s strongest voices. When leaders like King and X spoke out, they did so knowing that their lives could very well be cut short. This fearlessness must have been inspiring to the average American.
Yet, because the historiography of the Civil Rights Movement is overwhelmingly marked by stories of strong primary leaders, we often forget that it is the collective activity of everyday Americans that the bad guys fear. I often use this example when working with young people, but just imagine if King would have given his “I Have a Dream” speech in front of an empty National Mall. Would the administration have been so quick (some would say that it was still not quick enough) to push the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress? Of course not! Powerful individuals fear the collective voice of the masses.
As 21st century organizers, we have almost all but given up on collective direct action. Perhaps it is because we believe that we are not important enough to become change makers. In all reality there are very few Malcolm X’s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s inspiring us to dig in for an organized fight against the political and economic structures that hold us in chains. Yeah, we will sign an online petition, or maybe even attend an anti-war rally. Some of us have even done some voter registration. But rarely have we had an organized and collective vision of what change can be and look like.
It’s about time that we begin dreaming big. We must believe in our own leadership and the leadership of our peers enough to see that we already have the power to change our communities. And we can’t just believe that change can happen, we actually have to work toward a collective vision of change.
One of the difficulties of not having iconic leaders is that there is no one voice strong enough to bring us all together. One of the greatest things about Dr. King’s leadership was that he was a great facilitator. King was great at managing conflicting interests and interpersonal dynamics. Trust me, like us, the civil rights generation was filled with overzealous leaders and greedy organizations.
But all across the country there are great facilitators who have perfected the art of getting everybody on the same page. This skill set must not be undervalued in our movement. We don’t need to have a Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr. to begin having these discussions.
In fact, we can’t wait because it is highly unlikely that there will be a Malcolm X 2.0 or Martin Luther King 2.0 for three very important reasons.
First, corporate America is not going to televise our revolution. It drives away advertisers and hurts their profit margins. For example, when was the last time you saw a protest of the WTO or IMF on your nightly news? All over this globe, people are struggling against oppression and yet their efforts go ignored by mainstream media outlets.
Secondly, America’s political leaders are no longer interested in trying to cover up our country’s contradictions. We always have to remember that the civil rights movement took place during the Cold War. Civil Rights organizations had leverage because America was in the early stages of exporting its brand of “democracy” (ahmm, capitalism) to the rest of the world. There was no way that Lyndon B. Johnson or even Richard Nixon was going to let a bunch of black activists hurt the country’s image. Yet today, American officials, at least those in the current administration, are no longer worried about what consumers in other markets think about us. We already have a monopoly.
The final reason why there won’t be another version of Malcolm and Martin is because we are the most individualistic generation ever. It’s hard for me to imagine that in this era of ipods, portable video game players, and a million cable channels that enough of us would buy into the vision of a messianic leader like King or X. It’s not in our nature to believe in other people enough to actually respect the authority of leaders, as they did during the civil rights movement.
And that’s OK. We don’t need to believe in the leadership of one superhero; we need to believe in ourselves. No one else is going to step up and lead us but us. We are all Malcolm. We are all Martin. And until we really begin believing that, we will never be able to conquer the insurmountable odds that are up against us. I believe we can and we will. We are all makers of history; it’s time for us to start acting like it.
Biko’s 3 Tips for Young Activists
1. Change starts with the individual first. We can’t ask our friends, loved ones and neighbors to be more conscious of the environment if we are being ultrawasteful. The people you are trying to move can tell if you are B.S.-ing them.
2. You have to be consistent. To really get people to move, you have to build relationships with them. And you have to be reliable when you are building relationships (even romantic ones).
3. We have a whole lot of work to do. Our communities didn’t get messed up overnight, and they are not going to change overnight. But during the process of fighting for a better world, we all become better people.
Biko’s Suggested Reading List
The Children, by David Halberstam
Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire
A Force More Powerful: A Century of Non-violent Conflict, by David Ackerman
Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century, by James Boggs and Grace L. Boggs
Rob “Biko” Baker is a nationally recognized hip hop organizer, journalist and scholar. Biko served as the deputy publicity coordinator and young voter organizer for the Brown and Black Presidential Forum (a nationally televised presidential debate which aired on msnbc). Biko is currently the League of Young Voters Institute director and he also works with the Campaign Against Violence. Biko is a frequent contributor to The Source and serves on Wiretap’s editorial board.