7 Ways #BlackLivesMatter Improves on the Civil Rights Movement

“This ain’t your grandparents’ civil rights movement.”

Tef Poe was right.  In fact, it’s better.  Here are seven ways that Black Lives Matter (BLM) improves on the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.

1) Women to the Front

There were important female activists in the civil rights movements of the 1960’s – Fannie Lou Hamer, Amelia Boynton Robinson, and Mamie Till are just a few – but those standing out front were men.  Not only Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, but also were their mentors, and lieutenants, an closest advisors were men.

By contrast, Black Lives Matter was founded by three women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.   Two women, Mara Willaford and Marissa Johnson, stormed Bernie Sanders’ podium last month.  Another woman, Tia Oso, carried out a similar action in July at the Netroots Nation conference.  When delegates from BLM met with  Hillary Clinton in August, Daunasia Yancey was the first to speak to her.

Women have not just gained parity within BLM, they are leaders at ever level of the movement.  There is no other major American organization – inside or outside of activism – that can claim such a record.

2) Queer Leaders

Not only was the civil rights movement of the 1960’s led by men, it was led by straight men.  Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin were the exceptions, not the rule.

The exact opposite is true of BLM.  Two of the three BLM cofounders - Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors – identify as queer. DeRay McKesson, who  has become the mainstream media’s preferred BLM spokesperson, is gay.  All three founders of Ferguson-based collective Millennial Activists United are queer – and two of them are married to eachother!

3) The Radicalism of Love

Empowerment of women and LGBTQ people is only the beginning of the radically inclusive ethos of BLM, which explicitly seeks to right the injustices of past black movements.

Co-founder Alicia Garza writes:

“It goes beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within some Black communities, which merely call[s] on Black people to love Black, live Black and buy Black, keeping straight cis Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all.  Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.  It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements.”

Being inclusive is not only morally right, it is strategic. Inclusion means BLM has widened their base.  It means they are not putting up artificial barriers to talented and passionate people who can help their movement grow and succeed.  It means that they are powering their movement on collective love, a far more solid and durable motivator than the toxic intolerance that is motivating much of mainstream politics.

BLM was founded on the value of love.  The phrase itself was born within a post Garza made on Facebook, “a love note to black people.” It ended, “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.”  The Assata chant, which is often intoned at protests, also embodies this ethos of collective black love:

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

5) Fuck Your Respectability Politics

Inclusion goes to the heart of BLM’s rejection of the respectability politics that were so critical to the rhetorics and aesthetics of the 1960’s civil rights movement.


Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X (1964)

We all  have those images of college students pristinely dressed in blazers, skirts, and heels, of both Martin and Malcolm in their plain black suits, white collared shirts, and skinny ties.  Their authority also came from formal religious affiliations, Dr. King with Christianity and Malcolm X with Islam.

In the most prominent criticism of BLM, civil rights activist Barbara Reynolds writes in The Washington Post that:

“The 1960s movement also had an innate respectability because our leaders often were heads of the black church, as well. Unfortunately, church and spirituality are not high priorities for Black Lives Matter…The demonstrations are peppered with… profanity, and guys with sagging pants that show their underwear. “


DeRay McKesson & vest (2015)

While Reynolds is arguing for respectability politics because she found it effective, by arguing that sagging pants are inappropriate attire for a protest she is buying into white racism, the idea that black people must demonstrate their value by assimilating the respectability norms of the white bourgeoisie.

This is position is anathema to BLM.  According to co-founder Opal Tometi:

“[w]hen we say #blacklivesmatter – we mean all Black lives matter – regardless of gender or sexual orientation, immigration status, physical disability, income level, criminal record, etc.”

While both Martin and Malcolm’s signature outfit was a conservative suit, DeRay McKesson’s signature outfit is a blue vest so famous that is has its own Twitter account.   When BLM activists engage in actions – even when they meet with presidential candidates – They opt for a simple black t-shirt, often with the word “bulletproof” on it.

6) Social Media Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Black leaders of the 1960’s were constrained in their sartorial aesthetics by the fact that they could not engage in mass self-broadcast.  They needed to appeal to the prejudices of the white liberal bourgeois media in order to get coverage for their struggle.  They lacked the self-broadcast mechanisms of Twitter, Facebook, and cell phone video that have been so critical to BLM.

As an example, the photo above of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X was taken by Marion Trikosko of U.S. News & World Report magazine.  The photo of DeRay McKesson was taken by McKesson himself using his smartphone and was published via his own Twitter account, @deray, which has 228,000 followers.

BLM activists do not need to accommodate white prejudice to gain a wider audience for their ideas, and they are refusing to do so.

7) Leaderful Means Unbreakable

Finally – and most crucially – BLM improves on the civil rights movement of the 1960’s by being leaderful.  This means, according to Purvi Shah:

  • Being “high impact, low ego
  • Being “brilliant, humble and thoughtful”
  • Struggl[ing] with love,” despite internal and external stressors

It also means that while not everyone will be a leader, a leader in BLM could be anyone.  Though DeRay McKesson and the founders of BLM are visible, they do not control or dictate the actions of the BLM activists.  The 26 chapters of BLM are largely autonomous.

As outlined in The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman, flat and leaderful organizations are more adaptive and harder to defeat than hierarchical organizations with one leader at the top directing the movement and being a sole focus on media attention and public trust.  This is because any one leader is not critical to the operation of a leaderful organization.

Leaders who personify the movements they lead endanger themselves and their movements.  This is why the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were so catastrophic.  They were so loved, so revered, had such unparalleled capacity to push the movement’s goals, that when they were killed no one else was able to take their places.

Though BLM will hopefully never experience the assassinations of fifty years ago, their structure of leaderful decentralization makes them more resilient and harder to defeat.

Proving the Skeptics Wrong

In his influential 2010 work of cyber-pessimism, Malcolm Gladwell of The New Yorker compared the civil rights movement to contemporary digital activists and found contemporary activists wanting because of the supposed weak ties inherent to social media use.  He famously intoned that “the revolution will not be tweeted.”  History has proven him quite wrong.

BLM is innovating on the civil rights movement not only in the technology they use, but in their ethics, in their aesthetics, in the composition of their movement.  Theirs is not just a new civil rights movement, but a better one, stronger, more inclusive, more radical.  If you can’t get with it, get out of the way.


Header Images (l to r): Julian Bond and SNCC’s Atlanta staff in 1963 (by Richard Avedon), Alicia Garza and fellow Oakland activists in 2015 (Kristin Little)

Body Images: King and X (Wikipedia), Deray McKesson (@deray)

One thought on “7 Ways #BlackLivesMatter Improves on the Civil Rights Movement

  1. Another great one, Mary! Keep fighting the good fight! We’re so lucky to have such eloquent writers as allies. Thank you!

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