two good books on Black Lives Matter

  • Lebron, Christopher J., The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea (Oxford University Press, 2017)
  • Ransby, Barbara. Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First century (Univ. of California Press, 2018).

These are two very different but complementary books.

Lebron offers a history of the idea that Black lives matter, describing thinkers who lived well before the current movement and developed its core principles. His book is an extended definition of the movement, a justification of it, and a contribution to it.

Lebron pairs Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells as pioneers of the idea that whites can be compelled to reckon with racial injustice through “shameful publicity.” He pairs Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston as influential proponents of the idea that actual Black lives are rich and variegated and diverse, not defined entirely by oppression. Both authors “counter-colonize[d] the white imagination” by portraying this richness. He pairs Anna Julia Cooper and Audre Lorde, who demonstrated that you can’t value Black lives unless you value all Black lives, which requires appreciation for gender, sexuality, and other forms of diversity. These writers “teach us the lesson of unconditional self-possession.” And he pairs James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, Jr. as proponents of forms of love which–while significantly different–both imply “unfragmented compassion.”

Lebron is a great source of relatively overlooked quotations as well as an original interpreter of texts as familiar as Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” His overall framework is illuminating.

Ransby is an historian and a participant/observer in the current movement. She offers a wealth of detail about who did what, when, where, and why (up to her publication date in 2018). Like Lebron’s, her book is sprinkled with quotations that amount to arguments for Black Lives Matter, but her timeframe is narrower. She mainly traces the intellectual history of the movement from the 1977 Combahee River Collective’s statement (which, of course, had its own influences).

Ransby is attentive to organized structures. Many Black Lives Matter activists are concerned about concentrated power and prefer flat hierarchies. One source of these ideas is Ella Baker: see Ransby’s own book, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (2003).

However, it would not be accurate to describe Black Lives Matter as unorganized or as resistant to formal structures of any kind. Ransby describes “an assemblage of dozens of organizations and individuals that are actively in one another’s orbit, having collectively employed an array of tactics together.” Many of these organizations are autonomous nonprofits; some are companies or programs within organizations that also have other purposes. Ransby emphasizes the importance of local chapters, of organizations whose main purpose is to “weave together” these local groups, and of significant conferences, such as a gathering of more than two thousand organizers in Cleveland in July 2015. Most dedicated activists in the movement have long resumes of roles in formal organizations.

My impression is that resistance to hierarchy is real and valid. It goes back to the New Left and has drawn additional impetus from feminism. However, the major change from the classic era of the Civil Rights Movement is not that leaders then believed in top-down authority, whereas activists today favor looser networks. It is the profound shift in the sociology of American civil society.

The NAACP, the Urban League, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters exemplified a model that was influential in the United States during the first half of the 1900s. National organizations often had state units and local chapters; members paid dues that were shared by the three tiers; and leaders were elected at each level, often at face-to-face conventions. Individuals made whole careers within one of these organizations. One reason that the Sleeping Car Porters’ A. Philip Randolph, the National Urban League’s Whitney Young, Jr., and the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins emerged as nationally famous civil rights leaders was that they headed their respective organizations, and smaller groups like King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference imitated the same structure.

However, this format shrank and weakened dramatically in the United States after the 1960s. Instead, US civil society is now dominated by autonomous nonprofits that rely on donations, grants or contracts. They usually have self-perpetuating boards and relate to each other in networks rather than hierarchies. Many are both led and staffed by their original founders. Individuals typically affiliate with several of these nonprofits and add and subtract affiliations frequently.

Many of the organizations that Ransby describes (and they are very numerous) fit this description. I am not sure that anyone knows how to build new organizations that function as the NAACP or a union did in 1960. I wouldn’t say that philosophical opposition to hierarchy is irrelevant or invalid, but I am not sure that movements have much of a choice today. For better or worse, the way we organize ourselves is to form networks of small nonprofits.

This entry was posted in civic theory, Uncategorized on by .

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.