What Happened To Black Lives Matter?
Donald Trump’s election and presidency has inspired the biggest outpouring of liberal activism in more than a decade. But Black Lives Matter seems less visible than a year ago. After a meteoric rise t
The Highlander Research and Education Center is one of the unsung mileposts of the struggle for civil rights. People like Rosa Parks, John Lewis, and Ralph Abernathy refined their organizing skills at Highlander. It was there, in 1957, that a young Martin Luther King Jr. first heard Pete Seeger sing “We Shall Overcome.” On his way to the airport after the anniversary of what was then known as the Highlander Folk School, King proclaimed, “There’s something about that song that haunts you.” Highlander has since moved farther east, but its mission remains the same.
That’s why shortly after the 2016 election, on November 18, several dozen Black Lives Matter leaders selected it as the place to gather.
Top activists in the movement — like Alicia Garza, cofounder of the Black Lives Matter network of organizations (a namesake group), Charlene Carruthers of the Black Youth Project 100, and others — met to privately discuss how to move forward in Trump’s America. Protests had already dominated the news for days. This would be the time for decisive action, undergirded by a clear strategy. Here, in the hills of Tennessee, the activists would come together for a meeting of groups involved in the Movement for Black Lives, an umbrella group of organizations that want the same things, and devise a plan to address the new president, the shock of his election, the law and order he had promised during the campaign, and the devastating blow it all had delivered to generational movements about race and criminal justice policy in the United States. They would devise a plan — like the heroes of the civil rights movement once had decades before.
That good feeling didn’t last long. Few people want to talk about exactly what went wrong — how exactly the meeting devolved. But one problem, according to people who attended or were briefed on the meeting, was pretty simple: The ideas weren’t that good.
Some activists pitched things that had been pitched before. Someone pitched a plan that would require the recruitment of new groups into the fold, and leadership of the so-called resistance. And someone pitched a grand vision: the organization of 1 million black people. This last idea in particular infuriated people inside and outside the meeting. After years of organizing, local activists were cash-strapped, trying to keep their people motivated, and struggling to coordinate with other groups nationally while staying relevant at home. One million black people organized? Organized by whom? Organized for what? And this was the plan?
On top of that — people fumed over this — the meeting had done little to address the structural problems that had dragged down the movement since its meteoric rise from dispersed beginnings to national political influence. Many local activists felt they couldn’t get access to funding, and didn’t know who to take it up with. Organizers felt like they’d been lured in before by the promise of greater collaboration, the sharing of resources, and cultivation of a social community — only to feel left out, especially when it came to the Movement for Black Lives, an umbrella group of organizations that want the same things. Many chafed at the tenet, repeated by the press, that Black Lives Matter was free from hierarchy and instead began to question the existence of tight control exercised by a small group of activists. “The hierarchy was clearer than ever, even though folks are sure there isn’t one on the outside,” said one person briefed on the meeting. For months during the campaign last year, key progressives had watched Black Lives Matter and kept wondering two things many activists on the inside were starting to wonder themselves: What is the movement’s strategy? What is the end goal?