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How the BLM movement compares to the MLK Jr. era civil rights movement

January 18, 2021
<p>7 Miles for 7 Shots March participants holding &quot;Justice for Breonna&quot; signs at the Michigan State Capital on Friday, October 16, 2020. </p>

7 Miles for 7 Shots March participants holding "Justice for Breonna" signs at the Michigan State Capital on Friday, October 16, 2020.

Photo by Di'Amond Moore | The State News

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not mark the end of the fight for racial equality in America. 

In fact, professional and public writing junior Charlotte Bachelor said that the fight is still alive and well.

"I think that a lot of people think that once the Civil Rights era ended, that was just the end of the Civil Rights Movement," Bachelor said. "I think that's where a lot of people get it misconstrued because there were still a lot of political and social forces against Black people and ... keeping them away from being able to reach their full potential." 

Bachelor said she fully expected to see a revamped civil rights movement that reached the magnitude seen after the death of George Floyd. She grew up hearing stories from her grandparents and great-grandparents about their experience living through the Martin Luther King Jr. era.

The first major event in the Black Lives Matter movement Bachelor remembers is Trayvon Martin's murder Feb. 26, 2012. However, she said she didn't fully grasp the issue of police brutality until the summer of 2020.

"I believe I was only 13 or 14, so I did not fully grasp  the weight, the severity of that situation. But this summer, obviously I was 20," Bachelor said. "... I don't want to say it was a wake-up call, but it definitely feels a lot more severe and a lot more heavy when you're old enough to fully grasp." 

Social media also plays a role in the revival of the movement as a resource that activists can use to circulate petitions, donation sites and information about organized protests and protesting safely. 

It's also a place where people are facilitating conversations in a new way. Bachelor said that since she isn't able to be physically present at protests due to health issues, she uses social media to raise awareness and help other people get involved. 

"I think definitely now there are a lot more instant reactions, or instant responses to violence," Bachelor said. "So like, when George Floyd was murdered this summer like that same weekend you see protests everywhere. ... It makes it easier to rally people together and get resources and disperse information on a minute-by-minute basis. ... At times people were sharing 'O.K., the police are here, ... if you need to leave get out now' or 'Hey, they're dispersing tear gas.'" 

King is one of the most visible leaders of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Today, this moment is headed by Black youth. 

The face of the current movement is millions of different faces. But, Bachelor said she believes Black women have emerged as the figurehead of the racial justice fight. 

"Now with Black Lives Matter, we're seeing a push of Black women to the forefront," Bachelor said. "When Malcolm X said the most disrespected person in America is the Black woman, and then there was Breonna Taylor (her death) ... I don't think he (King) would be the face of the movement anymore, I think it would be someone much younger." 

Jennifer Cobbina, an associate professor in the school of criminal justice, said that a notable difference in the two movements is that while the civil rights movement was built on the shoulders of a few, primarily male activists, the Black Lives Matter movement diversified in gender and overall is more inclusive. 

"The cause has also drawn more diverse crowds than previous movements," Cobbina said in an email. "Specifically, BLM’s mission is focused on diversity, inclusion, and empowerment in a way that the hierarchical, male-dominated movements of earlier eras did not."

Cobbina said the Black Lives Matter protests are also not as centralized as their MLK-era predecessors, largely because of the presence of technology and social media. There are smaller chapters across the country rather than a travelling body of leaders, which makes these quick responses to incidents of police brutality much easier to achieve. 

"(BLM) is a “leader-full” movement that prizes collaboration over having one central figure deciding for everyone else what tactics to prioritize over others," Cobbina said in the email. "Instead of a pyramid of different departments topped by a leader, there is coordination and a set of shared values spread across a decentralized structure that prizes local connections and fast mobilization in response to police violence."

Although there are several differences in the civil rights and BLM movements, their common motive and methods show a clear continuation in the push for equality from the MLK days to now. While much of the 1960 civil rights movement was about equal rights and protections under federal law, Bachelor said the movement is now also about making structural changes in local communities and working closely with leaders at the city and state level.

"I think it definitely shows the importance of voting because I remember when I worked the 2016 election I had people asking me if they had to vote for president or not," Bachelor said. "I think it shows the importance ... that if we want the change we want to see in the presidency, it doesn't start in the White House, it starts in local communities. It starts with working with our city council and our mayor and our governor." 

Bachelor also said a critical step in moving forward and listening to the call for racial justice and equality in America is for non-Black Americans and allies of the Black Lives Matter movement to take the initiative in educating themselves rather than relying on their Black friends and acquaintances to do it for them. 

"I think there needs to be a time of reflection and actually practicing what we preach," Bachelor said. "So, 'O.K., we're going to be anti-racist.' ... I think definitely making Black history more known ... treating it just like we would American history and starting with anti-bias training." 

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Bachelor emphasized that making a strong effort to create equal and inclusive environments for people of color in America is what communities need. 

"'Diversity,' I think, isn't a cute tagline to make your university seem more diverse," Bachelor said. "It should be something that you believe in and that you're working toward."

This article is part of our MLK Day print issue. Read the full issue here.


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