When demonstrators for what’s been called the “next Civil Rights movement” first streamed onto the Downtown Connector, snarling traffic through the heart of Atlanta, the Civil Rights era was not on the protest planner’s mind.
Mary Hooks, co-founder of Atlanta’s Black Lives Matter chapter, was thinking about 1994, when a rolling roadblock of cars decorated in pink triangles and rainbow flags slowed Connector traffic to a crawl. These gay rights activists were giving Olympics organizers a taste of the chaos they’d bring if events were held in Cobb County, which passed a resolution condemning gays.
They won, thanks in part to Pat Hussain, 66, an Atlanta native who lives in south DeKalb with her wife Cherry and two dogs. And when members of Atlanta’s Black Lives Matter movement look for advice, they tend to turn to Hussain and other activists who emerged in the decades after the Civil Rights era, fighting for the end of South African apartheid, slavery reparations, and a host of causes on the political left.
“What we’re doing is not new. It’s the next phase of liberation,” said Hooks, 34, who is also co-director of LGBTQ advocacy group Southerners on New Ground, which Hussain helped found. “We’re just building on that legacy of work.”
These organizers fill a gap left by Atlanta’s famous Civil Rights era elders such as former Mayor and Ambassador Andrew Young, who thinks the current generation isn’t making a real sacrifice.
“I knew I was gonna get beat up when I confronted the police, but they know they’re gonna get away with it,” Young, 84, said recently. “It’s a cheap shot.”
Such talk has pushed some of the youngest Black Lives Matter movement’s members to shun the Civil Rights generation, thinking they have betrayed their own ideals.
“It’s like we live in a dystopian future where all the Civil Rights leaders have gone wrong,” said Parker Williams, 22, a Morehouse College senior and activist with #AUCShutItDown, a group of organizers who attend the city’s historically black colleges.
To members of the Black Lives Matter movement, the tactics of the NAACP and other established civil rights organizations have proven to be no match for today’s problems. Growing up as a foster child in metro Atlanta, Daniel Scurry would see these leaders on TV in press conferences, but never in his neighborhood.
“Young people think the NAACP is a group that speaks but doesn’t act,” said Scurry, whose group Silent Majority received unsolicited help from the NAACP when it organized one of the city’s largest Black Lives Matter movement protests.
This generation gap opened wide on Aug. 9, 2014, as video appeared online of Michael Brown’s body lying uncovered on a Ferguson, Mo., street. When activist Olamide Shabazz, 28 joined an NAACP email chain to discuss the shooting, older leaders told them to wait, he said.
“Wait on what? He’s still laying in the street,” said Shabazz, who drove to Ferguson and marched through the streets. When Shabazz returned, he left the NAACP and joined Rise Up GA, a nonprofit that is one of the dozens of groups that make up Atlanta’s Black Lives Matter movement.
The departures of young NAACP members after Ferguson was a sign that the 107-year-old civil rights group needed an overhaul, said Georgia NAACP President Francys Johnson.
“I would be the first to admit on behalf of my organization that we have for too long focused on hosting dinners, and patting ourselves on the back for the good work we’ve done,” Johnson said.
To this generation of Atlanta activists, more radical Black Power heroes have credibility that certain civil rights leaders lack.
“The feeling is they represent an authentic face of black resistance against white supremacy,” said Peniel Joseph, a University of Texas, Austin historian and Black Power movement expert.
Alongside the Civil Rights movement’s Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer stands Assata Shakur, a member of the militant Black Liberation Army. Shakur, also known as Joanne Deborah Chesimard, escaped to Cuba after being convicted in the 1973 killing of a New Jersey police officer.
Shakur is a terrorist according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s watch list, but to the Black Lives Matter movement she’s an innocent political prisoner, and yet another reason to be cynical about criminal justice in America.
During Atlanta’s protests, rallies and meetings, organizers invoke Shakur by chanting her words:
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.
This generational divide hits home in Atlanta in ways that it can in no other city. Last year, Black Lives Matter activists crashed the Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration to protest what they saw as mainstream civil rights groups downplaying his ideas on economic injustice to vie for corporate sponsorships. They marched past Ebenezer Baptist Church where he preached with a #ReclaimMLKDay banner.
A series of small meetings organized by the King Center fell flat with some younger attendees who felt older leaders were intent on using their new-found influence to push their own agendas.
“We walked out of one we went to,” said Shabazz. “It was very preachy, and very tone deaf.”
King Center CEO Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., said speakers were passionate, but the meetings were not contentious. King said movement members are interested in its nonviolence training, but no one has taken it.
“I don’t recall any kind of tension,” Bernice King said. “People came back, so what is the point of saying they walked out?”
Being an advisor to Atlanta’s Black Lives Matter movement means coming to terms with having no control over it.
Key members of Atlanta’s movement agree with Makungu Akinyela, 62, undergraduate director of the African-American Studies department at Georgia State University, who thinks that the current struggle is about human rights, not civil rights, and that police operate as an occupying force in black neighborhoods. Akinyela is also national organizer and a founding member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, which follows the vision the leader laid out shortly before his death in 1965.
Movement organizers went against the advice of Akinyela, who said protesters shouldn’t bother attending a meeting organizers won with Mayor Kasim Reed in July by marching through city streets. A Reed spokeswoman said that it proved the city is a national leader in the policing debate, and that his staff responded to all concerns that activists raised. But Akinyela said all that it did was got protesters off the street.
“We can’t be impressed with mayors or presidents or elected officials – or being invited to speak with them,” said Akinyela.
Advisers can’t expect favors from the movement. State Sen. Vincent Fort, 60, gives policy input and helps them get out of jail if they’re arrested, but only if he’s asked, he said.
“The priority should be providing support to Black Lives Matter with what they need, not what older activists think they need,” said Fort.
Established civil rights groups are learning this lesson. Hundreds of movement members joined Johnson, 37, and other NAACP members for a recent march to the Atlanta Police Department after the police shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, N.C.
As they approached Ebeneezer Baptist Church, Johnson, a civil rights attorney and pastor, led them in a spiritual sung at protests for generations, and that many of the younger marchers had never sung it before:
Before I be afraid, I’ll be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free.
Staff Writer Marlon Walker contributed to this report.