The movie Selma deserves the accolades it has received not just for its artistry but also because it lays bare for modern day activists the kind of strategies that are necessary to work a social transformation. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a Christian theologian but he was also a tactician. He recognized the power and absolute moral authority in love and nonviolence. He championed agape love. It was not romantic love or the love between friends, but the hardest kind of love to show—a love indifferent to human merit. You raise a billy club to me and I will kneel and pray for you. I can’t say that I could be as brave or as disciplined as the marchers who lived this history and code. The moral authority that flowed from John Lewis and others crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, getting beaten and not retaliating did much to render the movement “everybody’s fight”—the words that Viola Liuzzo used to justify leaving her five children in Michigan to join with civil rights activists in Alabama.
Dr. King saw in his increasingly multiracial band of civil rights soldiers an early example of the beloved community he espoused. The movement itself could be an approximation of the spirit of agape love and community that he envisioned for the whole of America. One expression of this love for community was seeing the mutuality in all types of human suffering. As King famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In the end he did not turn away from the hardest part of community building. In “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Christmas Eve 1967, he proclaimed, “Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation.”
When King wrote those radical words I think he was imagining a society in which people would be just as concerned about other people’s children as they are about their own. In the same way that people watching television were horrified when police turned dogs and water hoses on the children of Birmingham in 1963, or when they attacked marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, millions of people were repulsed by the deaths of young Tamir Rice and the adult Eric Garner. These killings of unarmed black males by the police were caught on video and the videos went viral. While some argue that mandatory taping of police won’t deter police brutality, video does have the power to attract allies to a cause.
This brings me to the Black Lives Matter movement. First, think about the words. There is moral clarity in this phrase. It endured more than others like “shut it down” and “I can’t breathe.” The Twitter hashtag #blacklivesmatter was voted the 2014 word of the year by the linguistic experts of the American Dialectic Society. The movement behind this cri de coeur began organically, with local uprisings about specific tragedies. One reason so many local versions of Black Lives Matter protests sprang up is that aggressive policing is so common in segregated, high poverty black neighborhoods. Moral outrage at the failure to indict for the killing of Michael Brown was deeper among those preyed upon in Ferguson with traffic tickets that too often became jail sentences. For those stopped and frisked too much in New York City, the failure to indict for Eric Garner’s death was a last straw. But the crowds that “died-in” at Grand Central Station, Times Square, and elsewhere were multiracial. And solidarity was also expressed in unexpected places, including by students at mostly white Christian colleges and by UCSF medical students in white coats staging a die-in about disparities in healthcare.
This decentralized movement has attracted a new generation of youthful civil rights leaders that are organizing and articulating demands to hold police and American society accountable. One bill has already become law because of the momentum of this movement. The Death in Custody Reporting Act, signed by President Obama on December 28, 2014, requires police departments to report all deaths during arrests and in custody to the Department of Justice and requires DOJ, in turn, to review those deaths and make policy recommendations.
This is a beginning, I hope, of a saner, multiracial politics for justice in law enforcement and other critical realms like housing and education. I believe the Black Lives Matter movement has the potential for staying power that the Occupy movement lacked because, like Jim Crow itself, there is a clear moral target and the activists coming to the cause span the rainbow. It is as true in 2015 as it was for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Dr. King in 1965 that you have to have allies beyond your own tribe to win a victory. You don’t have to convince everyone, just the growing swath of people who are open to diversity and want to make it work.
In the present and future, activism among people who are culturally dexterous will be extremely dangerous to the status quo. Cultural dexterity is the willingness to experience other people’s cultures firsthand and to see people who come from other walks in three dimensional, human terms. A real community policeman who practices this art daily would not have shot Tamir Rice in two seconds.
We can propel #blacklivesmatter and other justice movements by imagining the society we want to live in. Dr. King’s was the “Beloved Community.” For me, that means a society where no neighborhood or school is overwhelmed by poverty. Where a young man of any color can walk down the street, wearing what he wants, and breathe free of stereotyping by others and unfair profiling by the police. Where people have access to opportunity decoupled from where they live or whether they have money. Please add your voice and vision and act, yes, to change the world.
Sheryll Cashin, professor of law at Georgetown University, is the author of Place, Not Race; The Agitator’s Daughter, and The Failures of Integration. Cashin has published widely in academic journals and print media and is a frequent commentator on law and race relations, having appeared on NPR, CNN, ABC News, and numerous other outlets. Born and raised in Huntsville, Alabama, where her parents were political activists, Cashin was a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and served in the Clinton White House as an advisor on urban and economic policy. Keep up with her online at www.sheryllcashin.com and on Twitter at@SheryllCashin.