The departments of history and black studies hosted an intergenerational Black Lives Matter panel in the MacVittie College Union Ballroom to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy on Monday April 3. During the discussion, former and current activists spoke on their experiences in the black freedom struggle.
To begin the event, students took turns reading the platform published by the Movement for Black Lives. In this decree, the group advocates for propelling the United States toward the democratic ideals that the U.S. has yet to fully achieve. Responding to sustained violence against the black community, the group calls for an “end to the war” against marginalized peoples.
Leading the discussion were former activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Jennifer Lawson and Freddie Green Biddle who spoke on their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Co-founder and co-director of Black Love Resists in the Rust—a Buffalo-based activism group—Shaketa Redden described her modern grassroots efforts in transformational organizing.
In introducing herself, each woman included an overview regarding how she first became involved with activism and protests. Sharing similar backgrounds, Lawson and Biddle both provided snapshots of early organizing for the Civil Rights Movement in the South.
“I did not spring from the womb as an activist,” Lawson said. “I was, instead, a typical, silly, little girl enjoying the filtered experience of my all-black—extremely segregated—community in its own little world. Parents normally tried to shield us from lynching and things like that, but they couldn’t.”
Recounting her own experiences with childhood segregation, Biddle foregrounded the importance of education and voting rights. For Biddle, Civil Rights became a family affair, as her father and brother grew interested in the movement as well.
“During 1962, I had a brother who had just completed a tour in the navy and tried to enroll in the University of Mississippi … but was not allowed in,” Biddle said. “At the same time, SNCC was pushing voter registration in the norther part of Mississippi and we became very active.”
As a younger activist within the contemporary movement, Redden pursued civil rights studies from an early age. Before co-founding her own organization, she found inspiration at the 2015 National Convening for the Movement for Black Lives.
“Two years ago, I went to the National Convening for the Movement for Black Lives and we had sessions on healing, development and organizing,” Redden said. “There, I learned what it means to feel some resemblance of being free beyond being consumed by constructions of white supremacy.”
Within the framework of the black freedom struggle, electing people accountable to the community has always distinguished itself as a barrier to progress. Across generational divides, the presenters unanimously agreed on the essential and crucial power of political education.
“One of the most important things for the movement is the question of what it means to engage in a democratic process,” Redden said. “We need a deep commitment to political education: debate, strategy and development of ourselves in a world we understand.”
In comparing the current black lives movement with the Civil Rights Era, certain strategic parallels—like the use of nonviolence—have endured. On the issue of coping with the challenges of organizing, however, both SNCC activists emphasized how practices of self-care have evolved.
“One thing I’ve learned that I wish we had integrated is caring for yourself and figuring out how the movement fits into your larger life plan,” Lawson said. “Pay attention to the larger context in which your life fits and use your skills to contribute to the world and become the best you that you can be.”