Direct Action: From King’s Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter’s Direct Action

One of the most discoursed and perhaps controversial movements of our day has been the Black Lives Matter Movement.  To speak of it from pop culture to political reports and theological circles is to enter into an oftentimes emotionally challenging, heightened yet lively conversation centering in the deontological ethics of how injustice should be confronted as opposed to the teleological ethic pointing the world to the greatest good or outcome. 

Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement leaders would tend towards the state of American injustice in the black community embodying enough sting to confront it with shocking direct action. In the words of rapper Tef Poe, “This ain’t your grandparents’ civil rights movement.”

Tef Poe, co founder of Hands Up United Movement shares, “This ain’t your grandparents’ civil rights movement.” This is Civil Rights 2.0

The direct action seen in BLM has taken on a different form and tone than the Civil Rights Movement, yet there are some similarities that will be highlighted in this brief essay.  Because of the socio historical context of BLM, and hence the United States, there is great anger and emotion being released by BLM’s social action.

This has come from years of systemic oppression and traumatic experiences, as brilliantly outlined in Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary’s, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, “What are the impacts of generations of slavery and oppression on a people?  In order to begin to understand the magnitude of this legacy on contemporary African Americans, it is important to examine the diagnostic characteristics of trauma.”

Joy DeGruy Leary’s, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing chronicles the ongoing cycle of trauma in our communities.

She then continues to define the undiagnosed condition of PTSD that African American slaves have experienced and passed down to the next generations in what she defines as a “legacy of trauma”.  These stressors due to ongoing systemic oppression are bound to force response at some point. 

Today’s response is the focal point of this brief study in comparison with the response of King’s nonviolent direct action movement.

Unlike King’s movement, no one charismatic leader can be highlighted or given credit to the Black Lives Matter movement.  Both were people’s movements, but BLM took on an extremely grass roots, decentralized approach to its direct action against systems of oppression in black America. 

Many critics claimed that this lack of hierarchical structure was not a good aspect of the movement in conjunction with a lack of defined goals leading toward real change.  But BLM did engage in not only the anger of her social situation, but eventually defined issues that they were engaging through the August 2016, Vision for Black Lives. 

Without hierarchial structure, BLM did engage in the anger of her social situation eventually with clear demands for policy changes and economic reform by developing “A Vision for Black Lives.”

According to the book, Black Lives Matter, “The vision laid out several demands.  Among them was an end to police violence.  Other demands included changes in education.  The vision called for free college education for students.  It also sought a guaranteed minimum income for All Americans.” 

In the Obama Era of the first black presidency, Black Lives Matter’s actions became an awakening cry to America that we were not yet in a post-racial society and healing of white supremacy was still needed.  This was more than an emotional response to one or two police shootings or a stance against isolated incarceration incidents.

A few years prior (2010), a historic, well researched book entitled, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, identified the extent of systemic racism still occurring in America.  In this book, Dr. Michelle Alexander provides valuable insight into the often asked question, “Where have all the black men gone?” 

The New Jim Crow, written by Michelle Alexander details the extent of systemic racism still occurring in America through the Criminal Justice System, creating ongoing fatherlessness, disenfranchisement and a modern day “slavery” system for black men.

She then reveals the answer to be mass incarceration for offenses that many white men would never go to jail for, including the fact that only 8 percent of white men are in prison in comparison to women whereas it is 26 percent in the black community.  Leary pinpoints the culprit as the War on Drugs federal program, with the stunning statement that “more African American adults are under correctional control today–in prison or jail, on probation or parole- than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.” 

Due to this, the entire community has been affected by fatherlessness and disenfranchisement at unprecedented rates.  This is at root to the BLM initiative and need for action.

The Strategy
Black Lives Matter seemingly began without much strategy, but evolved into more of a strategic approach to direct action.  For example, some of BLM tactics included repeated chants such as, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” or “Black Lives Matter!,” calling the masses to take notice of her cry. 

BLM also conducted viral social media campaigns, similar to the massive media tv outlets revealing pictures and videos of non-violent protests during King’s civil rights movement.  Similar to King’s sit-ins, BLM conducted die-ins, laying on the ground as dead, blocking streets so the world could see a visual of black lives dead on the streets.

Much like King’s sit-ins, BLM conducted die-ins, laying on the ground as dead, blocking streets so the world could see a visual of black lives dead on the street. These images went viral through social media similar to the massive tv outlets revealing pictures and videos of non-violent protests during King’s civil right’s movement.

In contrast to King’s approach, BLM did include violent actions, “Rioters broke car windows, smashed storefronts, and burned down a gas station.”  Movement leaders did not speak against this violence even if not directly engaged in it, yet there were similarities and exact replications of Civil Rights Movement tactics.  The fact that BLM leaders did not speak up against these instances of violence has become a pain point in the American public, yet comparable rioting can be seen during the Barbados riots of Bussa’s Rebellion, led by General Bussa; the Jamaican riots of Tacky’s War, led by the Achan chief, Tacky and the Asante queen Nanny, and Haiti’s Toussaint L’Ouverture led a revolution as well in response to the Maafa (Atlantic slavery).

General Bussa of Barbados led Bussa’s “Rebellion” during the Maafa and is now a national heroic figure, teaching us the power of the human spirit to resist oppression whether we agree with the method or not.

Why is it that these revolts and other instances of oppressed people’s fighting back are historically labeled as “revolts” and “rebellions” yet the American Revolutionary War against England is considered a great victory? (1775-1783) Many of the leaders of these revolutions in the black community were indeed kings and queens of tribes and nations, would this not be “war” as well? Instead, they were demoted to “slaves,” all categorized together.

Black loyalists fought in the American Revolutionary War for “all men to be created equal” while slave owners largely led the war. Marquis de Lafayette, a French military leader declared, “I would never have drawn my sword in the cause of America, if I could have  conceived that thereby I was founding a land of slavery.” Yet this was is taught in a positive light only in most American history classes to this day. The double standard is evident when oppressed peoples respond for freedom in the same manner.

Although violence rarely leads to constructive outcome, it is what established the United States of America’s independence and led to the independence of the black diaspora in the islands. And King himself said, “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself.”

One can only speculate, but perhaps this is why there was silence on the issue from BLM leadership. We can continue to support a non violent tradition while understanding that these responses are at the least a clear indication of the extent of oppression the black community is still enduring in America. The need for teaching and leadership on how to respond in nonviolent direct action remains.

In 2017 BLM continued to protest systemic racism in the criminal justice system and other issues and by August of that year they began instituting Freedom Rides to bring hundreds of protesters to Ferguson, MO.  By October of that year thousands fought for freedom in Ferguson.  Freedom Rides were a direct model taken from King’s earlier movement.  

Freedom Rides brought hundreds of protestors to Ferguson, MO and by October 2017 thousands fought for freedom in Ferguson. This is a direct model taken from King’s earlier movement.

Unfortunately, there was a sense of a lack of leadership and control to the movement.  Oftentimes, initially peaceful protests turned into violent, dangerous scenes. People’s lives, businesses and the community was in danger, yet this was worth the cost for protesters who were tired of seeing their family members, people group and mothers in such unnecessary grief. 

The message was sent strong, but joining their efforts was also costly. Many, including clergy were jailed and pepper sprayed because they were part of demonstrations. Many former Civil Rights leaders such as Reverend Barbara Ann Reynolds began to respond to this aspect of the movement with exhortation to reform their methods and approach. 

On the final day of the Ferguson BLM march and civil disobedience, in response to Michael Brown’s shooting, Professor Cornel West and clergy, amongst others were arrested in Ferguson, MO.

Rev. Reynolds wrote a Washington Post article entitled, “I was a civil rights activist in the 1960s.  But it’s hard for me to get behind Black Lives Matter.  I support BLM’s cause, but not it’s approach.”  Her concerns were valid and congruent with BLM’s actions; she did not see an overarching message of “love and unity,” believed tactics to be divisive and described demonstrators as “peppered with hate speech, profanity, and guys with sagging pants that show their underwear.” 

She was also concerned with the lack of “church and spirituality” prioritization that leads to reconciliation as seen in King’s movement.  This along with critiques of BLM taking too long to have actionable goals that they are demanding the police system or government to enact caused Black Lives Matter to be less effective than they could have been in the early stages. 

Rev. Reynold’s concern with the lack of “church and spirituality” prioritization is a good point of reflection. She is right, it is desperately needed to created long term national progress in a peaceful manner that reflects Christ. Yet the church has lost it’s credibility due to it’s determination that the pains expressed in the black community due to racial profiling, disenfranchisement and discriminatory incarceration, is invalid and exaggerated.

The Civil Rights Movement was led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other clergy such as Rev. Ralph David Abernathy on the Biblical principles of non violence taught by Jesus Christ. Leaders from Civil Rights Movement 1.0 are concerned with the lack of church and spirituality in today’s BLM Movement (2.0)

We are in need of black and white leaders who are able to compassionately empathize and acknowledge current injustice rather than brushing it under the table in a weak attempt to “focus on the gospel only” while the gospel is centralized in the message of a “criminal” placed on death row unfairly, being released to save the world. Justice and the gospel message are deeply and forever interlocked.

Fortunately, upon Trump’s 2017 presidency, BLM leaders began to work on adjusting policy on local levels, addressed police brutality through passing “more than 85 new state and federal laws,” enforced police department investigations and developed over 100 chapters worldwide.

Black Lives Matter vs. King’s Movement
Black Lives Matter has taken on more of a non religious, tolerance to violent action if necessary approach than the Dr. King’s movement yet there are striking similarities.  One must only compare pictures from both movements in black and white to see that history has in many ways repeated itself. In King’s, A Gift of Love, he describes a scene of gang members being tear gassed, “called upon to protect women and children on the march, with no other weapon than their own bodies.”  Today’s famed social media and television visuals of young black men and women standing before heavily loaded police officers with no other weapon than their own bodies is a powerful display of bold action. 

Today’s famed social media and television visuals of young black men and women standing before heavily loaded police officers “with no other weapon than their own bodies” is a powerful display of bold action and reminder of King’s beautiful words.

Yet there is no denying that BLM demonstrators have at times embodied the type of frustration King warned of, “confused, anger-motivated drive to strike back violently, to inflict damage.”  Instead, King chose “social organization to resist.”  Interestingly enough, BLM did finally succumb to this approach, perhaps realizing this was needed for true change to occur. 

Because of King’s non violent tactics such as sit-ins, boycotts, and freedom rides, the Montgomery Bus Boycott led to desegregation of buses in Montgomery (1956), the desegregation of lunch counters in Kansas stores (1958), and desegregation laws through President John F. Kennedy’s ICC rule affecting many areas of society (1961).  

Overall, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the major accomplishment of the Civil Rights Movement; this was major because, “the president had broadened the issue to include proposals previously deemed beyond the reach of the national government, e.g., guaranteeing equal access to places of public accommodation and equal employment opportunity.” 

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 2, 1964 as Dr. King stood watching front and center, was the major accomplishment of the Civil Rights Movement “guaranteeing equal access to places of public accommodation and equal employment opportunity.”

It is fair to say that the Black Lives Matter Movement has not seen this level of impact on a national and local level in our nation.  There is still much more progress needed to reform the criminal justice system locking down “thousands of black men” that have vanished into jails and prisons, much like civil rights demonstrators were locked away and sent to penitentiary. 

Yet BLM has made significant advances such as the aforementioned police violence laws and investigations.  One significant method that is a major advancement, and praised above the Civil Rights Movement is Black Lives Matter’s inclusion of female leadership whereas women like Ella Baker were denied the right to walk with Civil Rights leaders and became prey to a sexist system. 

One significant method that is a major advancement, and praised above the Civil Rights Movement is Black Lives Matter’s inclusion of female leadership whereas women like Ella Baker were denied the right to walk with Civil Rights leaders and became prey to a sexist system. 

Yet this continues to be a struggle within BLM, regardless of the progress. Women have had to create their own version of the movement entitled, #SayHerName. Unfortunately, Say Her Name could also use more strategic planning to grow beyond awareness of police brutality against women, to true change.

In summary, the overall cause of the BLM movement remains the same as many causes prior to its existence, the freedom and equality of the black community.  Although the methods vary in nature at times, it is clear that BLM has been deeply impacted by the heroic generations before them, standing upon the shoulders of giants such as Martin Luther King Jr. 

Like King’s approach was different and appeared to be too radical to his predecessors, Black Lives Matter is the embodiment of a new generation with a new style of addressing the same centuries old issue. 

BLM has hit the target on the need in the Black Community that many have missed, but creating a generational bridge between the two movements would not only be healthy but incredibly fruitful in our continued need to fight for justice.

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2011.

Leary, Degruy, Joy. Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing. Portland, OR: Joy DeGruy Publications, Inc, 2005. 

Loevy, Robert D. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 : The Passage of the Law That Ended Racial Segregation. New York: State University of New York Press: 1997.


Reynolds, Barbara, Ann.  “I was a civil rights activist in the 1960s.  But it’s hard for me to get behind Black Lives Matter.The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/08/24/i-was-a-civil-rights-activist-in-the-1960s-but-its-hard-for-me-to-get-behind-black-lives-matter/ (August 24, 2015). 

Washington, James, M. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. “A Gift of Love.” New York, NY: Harper One, 1986.