Multi-generation activists find inspiration in Dr. King’s legacy, but note differences today with #BlackLivesMatter movement

By Corey Arvin
Staff Writer

Sylvia Martin-James hears an echo from yester years – one that reverberates just a little bit differently than the outcry for equality and justice from the golden era of the civil rights movement that she keenly recalls. The latest rallying cause for civil rights has centered on #BlackLivesMatter, a social-media inspired revocation to police brutality, that resembles the movement catapulted to the national stage by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin-James is a well-regarded and revered activist in Riverside who has taken cues from the civil rights’ movement emphasis on education and applied it to various local issues. Martin-James, a retired educator, is known for her role in establishing the Grier Pavilion in Riverside City Hall, honoring late activists Dr. Barnett Grier and his wife Jean.

Since the #BlackLivesMatter movement peaked last year, Martin-James has only been a spectator. She admits she isn’t a “technical” person in today’s generation of internet-savvy activism. However, Martin-James is heartened by the movement, but cautions there are important elements lacking in the approach she has witnessed surrounded calls for police reform. Martin-James believes the activism using social media is very singular, and doesn’t usually foster the collaboration and synergy that were the springboard for civil rights movements in the 1950’s and 60’s.

“High tech now pretty much is a singular involvement. It is a contrast to what was once a coming together for all of what was taking place [back then],” she said.

“I think there is a high likelihood of a pitfall. I think it is already becoming clearer and clearer the young ones are at ease with themselves and don’t have such a sense of others around. They are perfectly well equipped and this is what they are doing, high tech and think this demand is really what it’s about,” she added.

Martin-James watched the rousing gestures of solidarity and protests emanating from Ferguson, Mo. and New York from her television and followed the news coverage. It struck her that coming from an earlier civil rights generation, the input from her generation could have been an asset to the protestors.

“Being of an older age is a plus at times like that because you can have a greater understanding of the individuals as well as the groupings taking place at many locations so there would not be an attempt on the part of some to be much more boisterous and demanding and wanting to see instantly some change, some aspect of that change that would encourage them. … My only criticism would be some of the younger age, as well as some of the elderly age, to share with each other frequently,” she said.

A Complex Comparison

Before anti-police brutality protests reached a fever pitch last month, African-Americans and sympathizers of Ferguson were criticized from the left and right. Conservatives panned the argument that police brutality disproportionately – and unjustifiably – affected blacks. Liberals shamed Ferguson’s black citizens for lackluster voting statistics and dismal law enforcement participation, suggesting that the civil rights struggles that granted blacks the right to vote and equal opportunity employment, were being wasted. Those arguments stemmed from statistics such as how about 60 percent of Ferguson’s population is black, but most of its police officers are white. As well as how in 2013, 92 percent of those arrested were African-American, according to a report from the Missouri Attorney General. In addition, Ferguson has only one black city council member and only 12 percent of blacks voted in the city’s 2013 election.

According to Erica R. Edwards, PhD, associate professor of English at University of California, Riverside (UCR), understanding why African-Americans are negatively, disproportionately impacted by policing is more complex than their voting patterns or civic participation.

Edwards, who is also award-winning author of “Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership”, says the continued existence of structural violence is not necessarily about integration.

“These past 50 years have witnessed so many dramatic shifts with the growth of U.S. interest and militarism around the globe. So questions King was beginning to ask before he was assassinated in 1968, questions about U.S. imperialism, U.S. militarism, asking questions about Vietnam, those questions I think have become even more pressing, increasingly over the past 50 years, but especially in the years since the September 11th attacks,” said Edwards.

“The questions about who has a right to life or what kind of lives matter is a question that now gets increasingly asked, not only by oppressed people or oppressed groups within the U.S., those questions get approached through comparative frames. You see for example young black activists here comparing the kind of police violence we witness here to what’s happening to Palestinians living in occupied territories. I think it’s interesting that the kinds of work that King did and civil rights activists did in the 60s, that work particularly with regard to structural violence, is work that I think is being taken up by folks today. So it’s not just a question of integration, but really a question of who has a right to life and a life of quality,” she added.

MLK Still Inspires

Mark-Anthony Johnson, a member and spokesperson for the #BlackLivesMatter Los Angeles extension said the civil rights era inspires the organization, even though they operate in a different generation.

Civil rights leaders didn’t have the networking technologies that activists such as Johnson use to communicate with fellow activists and strangers alike, or to stir change with the virtually instantaneous posting of multimedia images. Johnson says social media has been integral in broadcasting messages and he sees a growing interest in the local faction of #BlackLivesMatter.

“[Social media] had a tremendous affect. It becomes a really powerful tool for folks to get information and interact. The fact that someone at any given moment can record an image … a moment of law enforcement violence. Not only because of how quickly information can get out, but how frequently patterns become visible,” said Johnson.

Johnson says he still sees value in the fundamental attitude King exhibited throughout his life.

“I think Dr. King captured an energy of persistence … being diligent about what we are up against.”