Rethinking Civil Rights, Reimagining Black Liberation

Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter ushered in a new era of social ...

Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter ushered in a new era of social movements and reinvigorated a culture of protest in the United States not seen in decades. As more people are politicized, it becomes necessary for activists to develop sharp analyses of past and present organizing, if the goal is to build sustainable movements. Aram Goudsouzian and Charles W. McKinney’s An Unseen Light: Black Struggles for Freedom in Memphis, Tennessee and Zoé Samudzi and William Anderson’s As Black as Resistance: Finding the Conditions for Liberation underscore a history of black people constructing cultures of resistance outside and, at times, inside established political and state institutions in response to their exclusion from the social contract. Both texts illustrate how the threat and realities of state violence spur black resistance. While the political spectrum of black politics in An Unseen Light is broader, both books illustrate the centrality of using an array of tactics in attempting to build up the power necessary to confront white supremacy and authoritarianism.

The essays in An Unseen Light place the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in deep context. Offering a panoramic view of how black Memphians responded to racial exclusion and state violence, the essays sketch a long black freedom movement beginning near the end of Reconstruction, with its reverberations extending into the 21st century. While the editors recognize the significance of Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis, these essays reveal the tragic events of April 4 to be a flashpoint in a longer history of black politics and activism.

The long black freedom movement in Memphis began taking shape during Reconstruction, with black migrants from Arkansas and Mississippi forging a race-based and coalition politics grounded in their desires to maintain their independence following the Civil War. Black Memphians created a robust infrastructure of nearly “100 different church groups, benevolent societies, trade associations, Masonic orders, and social organizations” to support themselves and their political work.

Yet, despite this network, black Memphians refrained from attacking white supremacist violence head-on following the May 1866 massacre, when white citizens and police officers killed 46 African Americans. Instead, as historian Brian Page argues, black migrants’ responses to their new conditions took unexpected forms. According to Page, black migrants and former white slave owners joined together to support Sarah Thompson in her dispute with school principal J. H. Barnum. Black migrants supported Thompson’s demands for more black control in the city’s public schools against the wishes of the local black political class, while former slave owners saw the dispute as an opportunity to undermine northern influence, embodied by Barnum. Such an alliance might raise questions about whether black migrants were practicing accommodationist politics, but Page contends that such a strategy allowed them to maintain a sense of independence from the local black political class.

An Unseen Light illustrates how black Memphians were the most successful when utilizing a variety of tactics and linking various issues in their movements against Jim Crow and for inclusion and power. Black Memphians disrupted political strategies of racial uplift in the early 20th century when they refused to enlist in the military and engaged in voter mobilization in response to Ell Person’s lynching. Robert Church Jr. emerged as a key leader in the local anti-lynching campaign, as he and others helped build the local NAACP into a powerhouse. The fight against racial and gender discrimination in employment, defense, and related industries turned into a fight against police brutality and sexual assault, with the NAACP joining a coalition led by black working women to protest the rape of 20-year-old Annie Mae Williams by police officers in August 1945. While the jury acquitted the officers, the organizing around the rape of Williams led to the hiring of the city’s first black police officers and set the stage for further political organizing during the 1948 elections.

While engaged in legal activism such as in the Annie Mae Williams case, the NAACP also blended “a more radical approach with its traditional emphasis on legal rights,” as James Conway’s essay shows. The organization helped found the United Black Coalition (UBC), which included various civil rights, Black Power, civic, and labor organizations. This coalition mobilized 10s of thousands of black Americans to confront inequities in education during the 1969 Black Monday protests. It supported mass student walkouts and work stoppages.

Black Memphians utilized a combination of electoral work and direct action in their struggles for inclusion and freedom. They also took advantage of national politics and leveraged the federal government in their struggles for inclusion and freedom. African Americans such as Russell B. Sugarmon Jr., Laurie Sugarmon, and A. W. Willis, Jr. developed close relationships with John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign staffer John L. Seigenthaler. Sugarmon’s and Willis’s work with the Kennedy campaign led to the Shelby County Democratic Club’s (SCDC) growth and influence in local politics. Such relationships between the Kennedy campaign and local black political organizations like the SCDC resulted in “at least forty” appointments of African Americans in the administration. Their work also had national implications, as the SCDC helped to turn black Memphians away from the Republican Party.

Black Memphians were the most successful when utilizing a variety of tactics and linking various issues in their movements against Jim Crow and for inclusion and power.

The struggle to desegregate public accommodations, especially the public libraries, intersected with the national sit-in movement that started in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960. Jesse and Allegra Turner’s efforts to disrupt segregation in the public library system inspired a seven-month sit-in movement “at lunch counters, bus stations, and churches, resulting in 318 arrests and the eventual desegregation of most public accommodations in the city.” Black Memphians won the campaign to desegregate the libraries as a result of the confluence of mass protest, litigation, and pressure from Kennedy’s Justice Department.

A lesson from Memphis, and elsewhere, was that the threat, or reality, of state violence often endangered movements. Repressive tactics of political leaders and state institutions exacerbated existing internal tensions, sometimes leading to a split in insurgencies. In 1940, Edward Hull “Boss” Crump, Mayor Walter Chandler, and Police Commissioner Joe Boyle conducted a successful “campaign of police harassment” that disrupted black organizing against Jim Crow. State violence and larger political and economic forces also stymied organizing in Memphis after 1968. The FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) successfully infiltrated and disrupted the coalition between the Memphis-based and Black Power–oriented Invaders and James Lawson’s and civil rights organizers’ fight against poverty.

Transformations in politics and economics after the 1960s further neutralized social movement organizing. In his essay on the rise of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and of public-sector unionism more generally, Michael Honey illustrates how economic and political transformations such as deindustrialization, automation, and the nationalization of an anti-labor politics have decimated labor unions and the life chances of the black working class in Memphis. The economic destruction of cities, the resurgence of racial segregation, and attacks on the welfare state helped create the conditions for a more punitive criminal justice system and mass incarceration.

Zoé Samudzi and William C. Anderson present a vision of liberation to address the aforementioned repressive and demobilizing structures and processes that took root in the wake of the long freedom movement in Memphis and elsewhere. Samudzi and Anderson’s call to arms, As Black as Resistance, challenges us to rethink our assumptions about organizing, electoral politics, and social change. For them, the notion of black liberation is to be taken literally. Consequently, they advocate for a radical and transformative vision of politics. They charge, “Black liberation poses an existential threat to white supremacy because the existence of free Black people necessitates a complete transformation and destruction of this settler state. … It is impossible to reform the system of racial capitalism.”

As Black as Resistance is an expansion of the scholars’/activists’/writers’ Roar Magazine essay, “The Anarchism of Blackness.” In the essay and the book, Samudzi and Anderson explain that the phrase “the anarchism of Blackness” is not synonymous with chaos. Instead, it points to the specificity of black history or the exclusion of black people from the social contract that renders blackness as “anarchistic.” And while mainstream depictions of anarchism often focus on tactics such as property destruction, the authors argue that it underscores a history of black people constructing cultures of resistance outside of established political and state institutions.

Samudzi and Anderson push us to question various long-held assumptions undergirding black politics and protest, whether it is black Americans’ roughly 80-year allegiance to the Democratic Party, our participation in the two-party system, or nonviolence as the primary strategy for social change. Their critiques of American exceptionalism, settler colonialism, and capitalism also raise questions about strains of black nationalist politics that rely upon claims to land.

In many ways, the strategies of resistance that Samudzi and Anderson envision in As Black as Resistance depart from those used by the black Memphians of An Unseen Light. For example, rather than grounding black liberation in claims to territory and property, the authors argue that we should see overturning settler colonialism as a precondition for liberation. According to Samudzi and Anderson, black people living in the United States would do well to see their fates entangled with those of indigenous people. They state that “the actualization of truly liberated land can only come about through dialogue and co-conspiratorial work with Native communities and a shared understanding of land use outside of capitalistic models of ownership.” Envisioning a liberatory politics in which black and indigenous lives are linked makes sense in the context of fighting police violence, especially since a 2014 study showed that Native Americans are 3.1 times more likely to killed by police than white Americans.

Given the current conditions in which black, brown, Native, and Muslim and Arab people are subjected to various mechanisms of exclusion, Samudzi and Anderson argue that collective survival is a precondition for black liberation. Thus, they remind us that the tradition of armed self-defense was not necessarily about an abstract and moralist commitment to orderly social change; it was about survival. Contemporary threats of police and vigilante violence, immigration detention, and other inhumane policies such as family separation have sparked important conversations about defense and civility.

How do marginalized people defend themselves against a state that possesses the capability to wipe out communities, either through disruption, death, or jail?

However, the inability of the authors to offer a sense of what armed self-defense could look like in the context of militarized policing raises the important question: how do marginalized people defend themselves against a state that possesses the capability to wipe out communities, either through disruption, death, or jail? Scholars like Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin Jr.’s analysis of the Black Panther Party suggests that repression can accelerate resistance and movement growth. However, the example of the Black Panther Party shows that a point of diminishing return may accompany an armed self-defense organizing model, at which point movements simply cannot replace the organizers who have been jailed and killed quickly enough for the movement to persist.1

Samudzi and Anderson’s advocacy of collective self-defense rests upon a critique of liberalism’s commitment to nonviolent social change, civility, and order. For them, the valorization of nonviolence and civility leaves marginalized people vulnerable to physical and legal attack from state institutions and the far right. Since Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, liberals and conservatives have often relied on a simplistic understanding of the history of civil rights activism that centers Dr. King’s nonviolent philosophy. Such mythmaking erased the tradition of self-defense as a tactic. The canonization of Dr. King and nonviolence also obscured the ways in which self-defense operated alongside nonviolent direct action.2

As in Goudsouzian and Mckinney’s An Unseen Light, one can glean here concrete organizing lessons related to resource development, leadership, and building power. Samudzi and Anderson warn of the pitfalls related to accepting resources from nonprofit organizations, because these relationships often blunt the radical edge of movements. They also echo the calls from activists and scholars such as Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, Keeanga-Yahmatta Taylor, and Barbara Ransby to privilege group-centered or horizontal forms of organizing as well as “leaderful” movements, rather than hierarchical forms of decision-making and messianic leadership. The authors also understand that a lot of people, even black folks, do not come to movements as experienced activists, let alone fully radicalized. Consequently, daily organizing against white supremacy is the key to politicization. “Removing oppression, not reforming it, demands the creation and radicalization of new dissidents. It is an exercise in imagining new communities,” the authors argue.


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Samudzi and Anderson also contend that developing a radical political imagination is important for creating the conditions for liberation. They encourage readers to take seriously Steve Biko’s proclamation that “the most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” One byproduct of settler colonialism, enslavement, white supremacy, racist policing, and capitalism is those systems’ success in convincing their victims that there is no alternative or that imagining something different will be futile. The only way one can address the question, “What does public safety look like in a world without police?” is to collectively devise a vision. From there, one tries to convert the radical vision into a platform.

The civil rights and Black Power movements were also in the business of imagining a different world. African Americans who struggled in Memphis and throughout the country imagined a world not suffocated by Jim and Jane Crow and one in which equality under the law and racial justice were facts, not just possibilities. Unfortunately, neither racial nor economic justice was realized after 1968. This has obviously not been for want of resistance since the end of the 1960s. These texts remind us of the need to build the power that matches our radical political imagination.


This article was commissioned by Annette Joseph-Gabrielicon

  1. Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (University of California Press, 2016).
  2. While some liberals may chafe at such a suggestion, the authors’ views on self-defense is consistent with historians’ analyses of the issue. See Lance Hill, The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement (University of North Carolina Press, 2005).
Featured image: FBI Wanted flyer for civil rights activist Robert F. Williams (1961). Wikimedia Commons