Member-supported news for Southern California
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Support for LAist comes from:

How protest movements have evolved since Martin Luther King Jr.

Ways to Subscribe
Tiah Barnes a USC student waits in line outside the Black Lives Matter LA performance art show at The Underground Museum Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles on July 8th, 2016.
Dan Tuffs/KPCC
Tiah Barnes a USC student waits in line outside the Black Lives Matter LA performance art show at The Underground Museum Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles on July 8th, 2016.

There is less focus on the perfect representative of blackness to participate in black activism, says one Cal State LA Pan-African Studies professor.

It's been almost 50 years since civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. And while civil disobedience remains a common course of action in response to ongoing issues of social justice, it has also changed. To find out how activism has evolved in the decades since MLK Jr., Take Two's A Martinez spoke with Funmilola Fagbamila, an instructor of Pan-African Studies at Cal State L.A. 

MLK Jr.'s brand of activism

King embodied a type of nonviolent civil disobedience founded on love, on this belief that there is something that is linking all of humankind. So there should be a kindness pushing forward for a better world, a faith in humanity but also critical of the actions of human beings that bring about injustice, so not a blind faith but an informed faith.

How today's activism is different

It's not all that different. I think that in the popular imagination there is this kind of deep difference created in terms of what activists and organizers of today are engaging in in terms of their civil disobedience and their nonviolent actions. It's put against this backdrop of what happened in the Civil Rights Movement. There are more similarities than there are differences.

How activism has evolved

We don't want to make the same mistakes. King and the rest of the organizers engaged in the Civil Rights Movement, they realized that they engaged in certain tactics, whether it was marching, sit ins, boycotts. They recognized some of their tactics were effective and there were things they could have done better. As students of the Civil Rights Movement and the black power movement following that, we recognize there are things to keep and things to leave... We take what's effective and leave what no longer serves the time.

What parts of MLK activism seem antiquated today

I wouldn't lean toward the tactics but the ideologies that informed who was engaging in the resistance of the time. What we have left is a type of respectability politic that sometimes and oftentimes informed the way that Civil Rights leaders went about recruiting who would be in these movements.

What I mean by that is that during the Civil Rights Movement there was an unspoken sentiment that the people would be proper representatives of the black people in this country. They would be  churchgoing, Christian, straight. So we've moved away from that, realizing that specifically if we're talking about the movement for black lives that blackness is a complex thing.

What MLK Jr. would think of today's Black Lives Matter and NFL protests

I think he would be in support. There's a characterization of Dr. King as this American hero, this nonviolent American hero that was advocating love that would be shaming the resistance movements of today. The truth is that in Dr. King's time he was not lauded as an American hero. He was demonized in much of the way that a lot of the organizers of today are. He was called anti-American by a lot of people. He was a disruption, a nuisance, pushing for change that was not of the time. This is the same characterization we get in the movement for black lives, of people resisting what's happening with DACA at this particular moment in immigration, so I think King would be supportive.

How activists can balance lessons of the past but push their message forward

This idea if they could only be more like Dr. King, I think oftentimes that critique comes from those who don't really know what the ideas of Dr. King were. Something we also don't necessarily address is the way his ideology shifted toward the end of his life, the way he had more radical notions about critiquing economic systems. We don't want to address that aspect of MLK's legacy because it's less comfortable. But what we would take from King's lessons, it would be using that which was effective. We know that nonviolent civil disobedience is very effective for particular efforts. 

Stay Connected