"Those who demonize the Ferguson movement and [those who] romanticize the civil rights movement have one thing in common: Neither has studied either subject deeply," said the Rev. Osagyefo Sekou in the opening of his lecture at the University of Louisville on Jan. 21. Two days after people across the nation observed Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, Sekou told the crowd gathered for the sixth annual Center on Race and Inequality's King Justice Lecture that "a new generation has reclaimed [King's] radicality and [his] demand that a nation be born again."
Until very recently, Sekou was pastor of First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain, Mass. He resigned his position earlier this month in order to devote his work full-time to the Black Lives Matter movement. In August, shortly after unarmed 19-year-old Michael Brown was shot by former Ferguson, Mo., Police Officer Darren Wilson, Sekou was dispatched to Ferguson by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which, according to its website, is "the largest, oldest interfaith peace organization in the United States." Sekou is an FOR Freeman Fellow.
Sekou asserted that the young people leading the Ferguson protests are the embodiment of "the radical gospel of Martin Luther King Jr., a revolutionary and militant practice of public ministry and its philosophical theology." Sparing his listeners the sanitized and mischaracterized colorblind King who had a dream, Sekou summarized the theology and philosophies that guided King's radicalism from 1950 until his death into what he called four concentric, "independent, overlapping and inseparable" circles.
"The four concentric circles are: One, black prophetic Christianity; two, democratic socialism; three, transnational anti-imperialism; and four, militant nonviolent civil disobedience," Sekou said.
He then took the audience on a journey through King's publications, public speeches and some private writings, such as love letters to his wife, Coretta Scott King, to demonstrate how those concentric circles played out in his leadership. Finally, Sekou closed with details about the people and ongoing work in Ferguson that show what he dubbed a "remixing of these concentric circles."
In processing the talk over the next few days, several lessons have stayed with me. I was struck by Sekou's argument that King censored himself on socialism in his public speeches because of the Red Scare and to conservatism in the black church. I imagined a radical, 30-something-year-old clone of King voicing those views today and doubted the charismatic leader would be heading a megachurch. The same conservatism that silenced him in the 1950s and 1960s likely would reject his pastoral leadership today.
My spirit was heartened by all the ongoing groundwork in Ferguson that we haven't seen in mainstream media. Sekou described young leaders who have taken so seriously King's line in "Letter from Birmingham Jail," "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," that they have gone to Palestine to march in transnational solidarity against state-sponsored violence. They take to heart King's democratic socialist ideal by creating co-ops, growing food to share, and discussing how business can be done differently in black communities.
But I've thought most about who is in this new generation of leaders. The Ferguson movement is "led by black, poor, queer women, mostly who are young, many of them who are single mothers," Sekou said in his talk. In a society that casts heterosexual white men as the norm and places wealthy heterosexual white men at the top of the social hierarchy, the leaders of the Ferguson protests are what we might call "the least of these." They are among the ones getting killed at higher rates than other groups in homicides targeting the LGBT community. As single mothers, they are the ones blamed for high crime rates and income inequality. As poor people, they are exploited, misunderstood and detested.
And yet, the least valued people in society are again the ones working hardest for the humanity of all of us. The protests in Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement are about black life specifically, but if they follow the Black Freedom Movement's track record, this new civil rights struggle will secure rights for everyone, be it because other marginalized groups are inspired by its tactics, because whites in power extend beneficial legislation to whites without power to keep black people from being the sole beneficiaries of their own agency, or because it creates a shift in society's conscience -- the very kind of shift that King, in his final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, insisted be an outcome of the movement. Legislatively and morally, everyone wins when #BlackLivesMatter.
[Mariam Williams is a writer born and raised in Louisville, Ky., where she's received numerous arts awards. When not working in the field of social justice research and taking graduate courses in women and gender and Pan-African studies, she blogs at RedboneAfropuff.com. Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]
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