The Role of Faith in the Movement for Black Lives

On April 19, 2021, I had the opportunity to address the Canadian Forces College National Security Program. They were “virtually” touring cities in the American South to learn more about the particular needs of the population in each city. I was on the panel with Dr. Katherine Lambert-Pennington and Hooks Academic Research Fellow, Dr. Courtnee Mellon-Fant. Below is part of my presentation that addressed the role of faith in the movement for Black lives. 

 

In her important work chronicling the role of faith in the early days of the Ferguson resistance, Leah Gunning Francis argued that many of the BLM activists and protesters in the streets of Ferguson “demonstrated a very particular kind of embodiment of scripture and faith” and that activists “sought meaning through scripture in connection with their work for justice.”

Francis’ book is important because not only does the book chronicle the early days of the Ferguson resistance and the activism of BLM, but the book also chronicles the role of faith in those early days as well. It is important because the role of faith in BLM has always been one of contention. For instance, unlike the Civil Rights movement that it is often compared to, people often do not associate BLM as a faith-inspired movement or one that has anything to do with spirituality. This interpretation of the movement comes from a discourse that suggests perceived silence from churches—especially Black churches, during the early days of the movement.

However, despite the misgivings above on the role of faith and BLM, this did not stop many people of faith from joining the movement. In our research for our book, The Struggle Over Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter, Amanda Nell Edgar and I in chapter 3, focused on our participant’s use of religious language and their own understandings of religion, faith, and spirituality that described their involvement with BLM. In short, we examine the “rhetoric of these narratives and examine how participants say that their faith, religion, or spirituality led them to support #BlackLivesMatter both online and “out in the streets.” What we discovered was that for many Black participants, the movement motivated a return to get more involved with their faith as well as an appreciation for the legacy of the Black Church.

BLM, Pentecostal Piety and the Role of Faith

But, how did people of faith reconcile the history of BLM and their own religious beliefs? One way that religion and communication scholar Christopher A. House suggest is that “many BLM activists self-identify as “spiritual but not religious” and their activism is animated by a deep spirituality that is personal, yet not connected traditionally to a religious institution. One of the BLM founders, Patrice Cullors remarked in an interview:

When you are working with people who have been directly impacted by state violence and heavy policing in our communities, it is really important that there is a connection to the spirit world. For me, seeking spirituality had a lot to do with trying to seek understanding about my conditions—how these conditions shape me in my everyday life and how do I understand them as part of a larger fight, a fight for my life. People’s resilience, I think, is tied to their will to live, our will to survive, which is deeply spiritual. The fight to save your life is a spiritual fight.

Elise Edwards suggests that while people who are engaging spirit “know that social transformation involves politics and policy,” they also believe that “transformative work is ultimately a spiritual effort that requires a shift in consciousness.” She also notes that this transformation is “dependent on inner change, the type of reorientation that religionists call conversion.” While this “spiritual transformation does not necessarily require the aid of formalized religious communities, African American communities have consistently drawn on Black religion to propel and sustain transformative justice movements and cultivate resistance to racism and other death-dealing forces.”

Our findings show the importance of spirit as well. As we ask participants how does your faith, or the role of spirit play in their support of BLM, many of them not only saw a connection but for some, it was a major reason for being part of the movement. In listening to their answers to our questions of faith and religion, much of it sounded like Andrew Wilkes’ notion of “Pentecostal Piety.”

For him, he sees this type of spirituality as crossing denominational, religious, faith, and moral lines because it has before. He writes

Although the civil rights movement is commonly linked with the Baptist denomination of Christianity, we don’t do it justice to remember it as denominational simply because it was so strongly associated with a certain, charismatic Christian clergyman of color. The ideas animating the movement were of far more diverse origin. The civil rights movement saw Black folks (and non-Black folks) consecrate the American dream by way of the prophetic Baptist theology of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, yes. But it also involved the anointed agnosticism of Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s founding executive director and the generative force of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Ella Baker. The radical Quaker vision of a Bayard Rustin next to the ethical humanism of an Asa Phillip Randolph were also blended in. And also in the mix was the subtle, yet significant tradition of faith-filled lay activists like Fannie Lou Hamer and Marian Wright Edelman.

Drawing from Wilkes, we note two major points about Pentecostal piety. First, Pentecostal piety places a heavy emphasis on the role of the spirit, and second, Pentecostal piety places a priority on prophetic action. Wilkes calls it a “subversive civil religion.” If this is true, then it is a civil religion that functions as a prophetic witness.

Many of our respondents would agree that BLM acts as a prophetic movement that provides a prophetic witness to the contextual realities faced by many African Americans. If this is true, then BLM is part of the long African American prophetic tradition. This tradition was

Birth from slavery and shaped in Jim and Jane Crow America, the African American version of the prophetic tradition has been the primary vehicle that has comforted and given voice to many African Americans. Through struggle and sacrifice, this tradition has expressed Black people’s call for unity and cooperation, as well as the community’s anger and frustrations. It has been both hopeful and pessimistic. It has celebrated the beauty and myth of American exceptionalism and its special place in the world, while at the same time damning it to hell for not living up to the promises and ideals America espouses. It is a tradition that celebrates both the Creator or the Divine’s hand in history—offering “hallelujahs” for deliverance from slavery and Jim and Jane Crow, while at the same time asking, “Where in the hell is God?” during tough and trying times. It is a tradition that develops a theological outlook quite different at times from orthodoxy—one that finds God very close, but so far away.

BLM is then just the latest in the history of people standing up and providing clarity and witness to the atrocities happening to Black bodies.

Conclusion

Though many believed that Black Churches were not as active as they once were, many understood the tradition and the legacy of the Civil Rights movement and saw themselves as connected to the tradition. The tradition also gave participants theological license to rethink, reshape, and reimagine what spirituality would look like in the BLM movement. This too, as we attempted to show, is part of the Black religious tradition. Birth in the resistance of a narrative that told Black people that they were not created in the image of God, Black people always had to put forth narratives that not only included them but also remind them that they too mattered.

For participants of faith, BLM offered a way of understanding a personal relationship with spirituality as a bridge to past civil rights leaders. In this way, larger movement history worked to draw in new social justice participants implicitly through their individual connections to the Spirit. BLM is not an explicitly religious organization. Yet the history of Black liberation organizes bubbles beneath the movement for Black lives. When activists engage in a spirituality that moves from moral suasion to bearing witness, they are discovering new and transformative ways to handle issues, problems, and concerns that Black people face daily. As a liberative and prophetic movement, BLM activists have drawn of the Black liberationists movements of the past and discerned the contextual realities confronting them today. In so doing, just like the civil rights activists that went before them, BLM is no different in that regard.

Andre E. Johnson is the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute Scholar in Residence and Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Memphis. 

Reflections from the Derek Chauvin Verdict

George Flyod MuralOn April 20, 2021, a jury found Derek Chauvin guilty of the death of George Floyd. Many took to social media to share their thoughts on the trial and the verdict. We here at Uplift thought we would share some of those comments. 

 

 

Let’s say that Derek Chauvin is convicted and appropriately sentenced for the murder of an unarmed black man named George Floyd. Even if the best-case scenario is realized, it’s just one. One man. One conviction. One appropriate sentencing. Countless unarmed black people continue to die at the hands of police officers. 12 jurors cannot balance the scales of 400 years of white violence against black bodies and spirits. I can’t find hope in one conviction. It’s bad math. Hope happens when we change the equation. When every black person encounters white officers and the outcome is respect, recognition of each other’s humanity, and life not death. One trial, regardless of the outcome, cannot do that.-Ebony Utley

We now know exactly how depraved one has to be in order to be found guilty of murdering a Black person in the United States of America. And, just how much evidence is needed. The level of protest that is required. Justice shouldn’t be so hard. I truly pray that Mr. Floyd’s family finds some peace after this. What about the family of Daunte Wright, however? Or Adam Toledo? Breonna Taylor? Sandra Bland? Ayanna Jones? Michael Brown? I could go on, but, well, I’d run out of space. I wish I felt happier. What I mostly feel, however, is tired. And sad. We’re at a crossroads. Which path will we choose? It’s time to end the system of Warrior Cops. New systems of Community Policing must be established. The system we have protects property, not people. That’s what it was created to do. It’s time to try something new. #blacklivesmatter #AbolishThePoliceAmritaChakrabarti Myers

I’m not sure I completely realized how deeply this case was affecting me. I can’t stop shaking right now literally I can’t stop shaking— I don’t feel relief as much as grief because—in waiting for this trial to come and go—I have not been able to properly grieve. Seeing Chauvin taken away in handcuffs finally allowed me to grieve.-Yohuru Williams

A very strange relief. We are so used to racism winning. It’s so insidious. I will not celebrate that someone was convicted for murdering someone on camera, in front of the world, and showed no hint of remorse after. I am relieved, but, a conviction is at least what should be expected. One of the insidious racial moves is to make Chauvin a poster boy for the label “bad apple.” What we actually need to do is reassess the entire practice of policing. That was on trial, too.-Reggie Williams

I was 21 when the verdict came down for Rodney King. I am crying now. Not because justice has been served, but because of how many times justice hasn’t been served. I have been tense since the trial started because I firmly believed that Chauvin was going to get off scot-free. They are killing us, the punishment of one doesn’t stop that fact. Over 64 people have died at the hands of the police since this trial started. So, I am relieved, happy his family has some semblance of justice. But, I already know how much value my country puts on my life. And I will not forget.-Kimberly N. Brown

A man is dead. A guilty verdict is satisfying in a bittersweet way and will not bring him back. The American justice system has so failed and traumatized black people that many of us have no faith in it at all. So much so, that when what should be an “open and shut” case is actually decided correctly, we are surprised and relieved. The system has been known to turn on its own when doing so is necessary to preserve itself. I’ll celebrate when convictions become the “rule” and are no longer surprise “exceptions. We still have a lot of work to do.-Xavier L. Johnson

George Floyd: A Black Man Mattered | We Commemorate this Moment

George Flyod MuralAs a Black man, the value of George Floyd’s human and civil rights was affirmed yesterday by the jury in Minneapolis that found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering Floyd.

Like many of you, I am consumed with reading the many editorials and statements which rightly state that while this verdict represents progress in holding institutional authority accountable – in this case, a Minneapolis police officer for the horrific death of George Floyd – this is a step in addressing institutional racism, not a permanent cross over any finish line.

The fight for racial equity and justice continues today, tomorrow, and for years to come. I urge each of us, as I plan to do, to rest and recommit to the long struggle for civil rights, social justice, and equality.

But today, we commemorate this moment when justice prevailed in a Minneapolis courtroom. The jury resoundingly found that the life of a Black man, George Floyd, mattered.

Daphene R. McFerren
Executive Director
Hooks Institute

The Call to Attend to Race in the Study of Religious Rhetoric

Andre E Johnson

Below is part of a presentation I gave at the Southern States Communication Association on April 8, 2021. It was part of the “Role of Race in Religious Rhetoric and Communication” panel.

In her groundbreaking essay, Lisa Flores argues that “race is foundational to the work of rhetorical criticism and that any criticism void of this consideration is incomplete, partial, if not irresponsible.” About this, she writes

If rhetorical scholars are to attend to all matter of discourse, whether understood as questions of impact, influence, or circulation, or questions of argument and audience, or questions of affect and materiality, we cannot ignore race. Rhetorical meanings, as they circulate on and around bodies, are already raced. Bodies that speak and listen, that exhort and cajole, that desire and hate are already raced.

However, following the lead of other rhetoric scholars who have called our attention to attend more to race in our studies[1] and not to marginalize the scholarship that is already published, I invite scholars of rhetoric and religion to start examining how race functions in our religious discourses. I do this because if as Matthew Houdek notes, “the whiteness of rhetorical studies is outrageous” and the “time has come to confront it,” it is also time to confront the fact that research in rhetoric and religion and indeed, religious communication itself is catastrophically white.

I would like for scholars, especially of rhetoric and religion, to grapple with how one uses rhetoric and how rhetorical approaches to religion can contribute to a deeper and more meaningful understanding of both religion and race. I call on us to understand how one uses rhetoric as a method or how rhetorical approaches to religion can contribute to a deeper and more meaningful understanding of both religion and race.

One way I argue to do this is to examine the African American prophetic tradition. In so doing, scholars will begin not only to unpack how those rhetors spoke against a tradition and system that still devalues them and their contributions but also to have a better and more holistic understanding of how rhetoric and religion function. This is not to negate the good work done by scholars who study rhetoric and religion. Scholars of rhetoric and religion have done a lot to lessen the resistance in our field toward religion. However, an understanding of how race functions at the intersection of rhetoric and religion would be helpful in two primary ways.

First, a study of race at the intersection of rhetoric and religion can expose some differences in how rhetoric is presented and performed. In my study of prophetic rhetoric, I attempt to demonstrate how scholars, in perpetuating the canon of prophetic rhetoric studies, sometimes missed a separate tradition of prophetic rhetoric. It is how scholars can publish books without one figure of color or how someone can publish a survey of the field and leave out the most recent and relevant works of Black scholars that have explicitly published about prophetic rhetoric. It is also how even when scholars examine speeches by Black figure they would deem as prophetic, they still would use the European understanding of the jeremiad instead of seeing how race would lead the speaker to adopt a different type of appeal.

Second, a study of race at the intersection of rhetoric and religion will address Flores’ call for all of us to take race more seriously in our rhetorical analyses. In the field of communication, several scholars have taken on that call and challenge. However, many of them do not study religion. I argue that we who study rhetoric and religion can make a significant impact in our fields of study. We bring to the table an understanding of religion and its importance.

For instance, a study of Barack Obama’s rhetoric is not complete without attending to his religious rhetoric and the counter-religious rhetoric against him. As others have demonstrated, Obama used religious rhetoric more than any of the modern-day presidents, yet many who examine his rhetoric and discourse do not see him as a religious orator. Imagine if we would embrace the fact that much of Obama’s rhetorical theology comes from an understanding of Black Liberation Theology—a theology deeply rooted in an understanding of freedom, justice, equality, and race. That would also mean that we would have to reexamine our notions of what gets to be called religion as well.

Finally, A study of race at the intersection of rhetoric and religion will force us to move away from white evangelical definitions of faith and adopt other ways to see and experience faith and religion—and I, for one, would welcome that.

[1] Matthew Houdek, “Racial Sedimentation and the Common Sense of Racialized Violence: The Case of Black Church Burnings.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 104, No. 3, 279–306 (2018); Michelle Kelsey Kearl, “The Stolen Property of Whiteness: A Case Study in Critical Intersectional Rhetorics of Race and Disability.” Rhetoric Review, 37:3, 300-313, (2018); Mollie K. Murphy and Tina M. Harris, “White Innocence and Black Subservience: The Rhetoric of White Heroism in The Help.” Howard Journal of Communications, Vol. 29, No 1, 49-62, (2018); Rishi Chebrolu. The Racial Lens of Dylann Roof: Racial Anxiety and White Nationalist Rhetoric on New Media. Review of Communication. Vol. 20, No. 1, 47–68, (2020)

Andre E. Johnson is the Scholar in Residence at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change and Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Memphis. 

Behind the Model Minority Myth

by SunAh M. Laybourn

Photo: Andre E. Johnson

Last month Robert Aaron Long opened gunfire on Asian-owned/operated spas in the Atlanta metro area, ultimately killing eight people, including six Asian women. This mass shooting brought national attention to what many Asians in America were already aware of rising anti-Asian violence since the beginning of the COVID-19  pandemic. In the weeks preceding the March 16, 2021 mass shooting, Asian and Asian American activists, social media influencers, and prominent figures had taken to social media, calling out the lack of news media attention to anti-Asian harassment, particularly to attacks on elderly Asian people. While reports of anti-Asian harassment and violence began to spike in March-April of 2020, for the most part, knowledge of these attacks was internal to the Asian community.

Why has the rising anti-Asian violence during the COVID-19 pandemic received scant mainstream media attention? And, why, in the immediate aftermath of Long’s mass shooting, were media hesitant to label his actions as racially motivated, much less a hate crime?

The answers to these questions can be traced to how Asians in America have historically been portrayed.

In 1966, New York Times Magazine featured an article by William Petersen, a sociologist, and demographer, entitled “Success Story, Japanese-American Style .” In it, Petersen lauded Japanese Americans for overcoming “color prejudice,” the denial of their “elementary rights,” exclusionary immigration legislation, and internment rather than becoming “problem minorities.” Over the next decade, Newsweek [1], Los Angeles Times [2], and U.S. News and World Report, among other mainstream press, ran similar stories extolling Chinese and Japanese Americans for “outwhiting the whites .”[3] Attention was also given to their educational and economic achievements, crediting their “meaningful links with an alien culture” along with their values of familial obligation and respect for authority.

“Prior to these mainstream press features, the two largest Asian ethnic groups in the U.S., Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans, desiring to attain full social, legal, and cultural citizenship within their home country, launched their own campaigns to prove their belonging emphasizing their work ethic, commitment to family values, and patriotism, while minimizing juvenile delinquency, poverty, need for social services, and discrimination experienced by their ethnic community [4]. Thus, the model minority myth was born.

These 1960s-1970s mainstream news features seemingly presented East Asians in America within a complementary light, a sharp turn given how mainstream press, the U.S. government, and academics had constructed them throughout the 19th century thru the mid-20th century, alternatively, as a Yellow Peril threatening the U.S. way of life, aliens ineligible for citizenship, and foreign enemies on American soil. Yet even as news media heralded East Asian Americans’ success, they did so by reinscribing their distinct differences from (white) American culture while simultaneously using East Asian Americans to denigrate other racially minoritized groups, specifically Black Americans. In news media and scholars’ explanations, if East Asian American’s “successful” assimilation into whiteness was a function of their “culture,” then Black Americans’ failure to assimilate into the (white) American ideal was a result of theirs. Moreover, if Asian Americans could pull themselves up by their bootstraps without government social services and in such a way as to “outdo Horatio Alger,” then other racially minoritized groups should, too. A 1966 U.S. News & World   article made this stance clear, stating, “At a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of billions be spent to uplift Negroes and other minorities, the nation’s 300,000 Chinese Americans are moving ahead on their own with no help from anyone else.”

Claire Jean Kim conceptualized this process of comparative racialization as racial triangulation. She theorized that the continuous process of creating and assigning racial meaning to groups of people is mutually constitutive and constructed across multiple dimensions. Lauding East Asian American’s “culture” and denigrating Black Americans’ while simultaneously reinforcing East Asian Americans’ persistent foreignness are examples of this process. In turn, these various cultural constructions are linked to the differing ways that racially minoritized groups are oppressed, whether through race-specific exclusionary immigration legislation, discriminatory practices, and/or unequal distribution of resources. Cultural constructions, public policies, and institutional practices together maintain white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and xenophobia.

When news media fail to identify a mass shooting targeting Asian-owned/operated spas as racially motivated, this omission continues the cultural construction of East Asian Americans as model minorities and upholds white supremacist ideology. By not connecting Long’s mass shooting to racism (and misogyny), East Asian’s “success story” of assimilation into American society is maintained. Simultaneously, Long’s targeting of Asian spas due to his seeing these businesses as a “temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate is similar to how Asian women have historically been sexualized, constructed as lacking moral character, and feared for carrying. It is these same ideas of Asians as disease-carrying and threats to U.S. culture and way of life that were called forth when former President Trump referred to COVID-19 as the “China virus.” While his words alone did not cause the rise in anti-Asian violence throughout the past year, they reinforced ideas of Asians as unfit for citizenship in America. As demands for racial justice and the end to all oppression are receiving increasing attention, we must consider the multiple and enduring ways that racism, anti-Blackness, xenophobia, and other systems of power create a matrix of domination. By understanding the links between the past and present manifestations of white supremacy, we can dismantle these systems of power in all of their forms.

Dr. SunAh M. Laybourn is a Hooks Academic Research Fellow and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Memphis. 

[1] Newsweek. 1982. “Asian-Americans a ‘model minority.’” December 6. Pp. 39-51.

[2] Los Angeles Times. 1977. “Japanese in U.S. Outdo Horatio Alger.” October 17. P 1.

[3] Newsweek. 1971. “Success Story: Outwhiting the Whites.” June 21.

[4] Wu, Ellen D. 2014. The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Welcome Hooks Academic Research Fellow: Christopher A. House

Dr. Christopher A. House (Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh) is an associate professor of Communication Studies and affiliate faculty in Culture and Communication and Martin Luther King Scholar program at Ithaca College. His research interests are in Black Pentecostal rhetoric & social action, rhetoric, race & religion, communication & culture, Black church studies, African American rhetoric, and rhetorical theology.

As a Ronald E. McNair Scholar, Syracuse University Fellow, and K. Leroy Irvis Fellow, he has received several national awards and honors. His scholarship has been published in Journal of Communication and Religion (2018), Southern Journal of Communication (2018), Journal of Contemporary Rhetoric (2017), International Encyclopedia of Communication Research Methods (2016), Journal of Race & Public Policy (2014), International Journal of Communication (2013) and Memphis Theological Seminary Journal (2012). His current manuscript, Living Witnesses: The Holy Spirit, Social Justice, Black Pentecostal and What we all can learn from Them is expected to be published in 2022.

Beyond the classroom, Dr. House is also a man of faith and currently serves as the pastor of Christian Community Church Ithaca. He is an accomplished motivational & inspirational speaker, and lecturer for several religious, non-profit, and community organizations in the United States, the Caribbean, Canada, and in several African countries. In addition to his academic, professional, and ecclesiastical responsibilities, he enjoys spending time with family and friends.

To see Dr. House’s CV, click here.

Sustained the Championing of Civil Rights and Social Justice: The Hooks Institute

It is ironic, if not exhausting, that seemingly basic issues, like the right to vote, remain at the forefront of dissension in American life. However, as Coretta Scott King poignantly stated, the struggle for civil rights “is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.” When speaking about civil rights, the late Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks would say to young people, “it’s your time now.” The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change programming seeks to fulfill the mandate of the civil rights movement and its legacies.

Universities have a profound role in engaging students and communities to encourage rigorous thinking and constructive action to promote racial equality, inclusiveness, and fairness. The Hooks Institute, an interdisciplinary center at the University of Memphis, plays this pivotal role. Our mission is teaching, studying, and promoting civil rights and social change. Our work is vitally important during this critical moment as the nation struggles with race, voting rights, and the increasing marginalization of minorities and the poor. The Institute’s scholarship and community engagement are made possible through the support of the University of Memphis, donors, and grantors. We are grateful for this support.

Held throughout the year, the Hooks Institute lecture series engages local and national thought leaders in the university and greater community to address the legacy of the civil rights movement and its continuing relevance to today. These events are free, open to the public, and available on streaming platforms.

As an outcome of a Policy Paper published by the Institute, the Hooks Institute formed a coalition that included the UofM School of Urban Planning and Policy and community development corporations to assess the impact of rent-to-own purchase agreements. These agreements, often entered by people of color and immigrants, contain draconian terms for renters. In October, working with local real estate attorneys, the Institute and the coalition led training for staff of the City of Memphis, Code Enforcement, on how to identify those in rent-to-purchase agreements, and, if appropriate, refer them for housing counseling. Additionally, in August, the Hooks Institute and UofM faculty trained the staff of a federal agency on the impact of race, poverty, and other disparities on Memphis communities.

The Hooks Institute’s historical narratives on civil rights and social justice include the Fayette County, Tennessee exhibit on voting, a short documentary series on civil rights history in Memphis, titled “Stories to Inspire Change,” and feature-length documentaries, including our upcoming documentary on civil and women’s right activist Ida B. Wells (1862-1931).

Created in 2015, the Hooks African American Male Initiative (HAAMI) focuses on increasing the retention and graduation rates and career readiness of African American males enrolled at the UofM. While the HAAMI programs aid students in achieving personal success, HAAMI also aids Memphis to become a destination for employers seeking a prepared workforce.

Because of the struggle for freedom and civil rights, African Americans, like no other group in American history, have fundamentally changed the nation’s Constitution, its laws, and the trajectory of American history. The beauty that can be found in this struggle is that the gains of the civil rights movement have benefitted all people, making the United States a more just nation.

The future of civil rights remains to be written. We remain optimistic about the future, but this future requires dedication and work from many. At the Hooks Institute, we are focused on ensuring that the struggle for civil rights is never forgotten and that its gains are sustained and nurtured for generations to come.

Daphene R. McFerren
Executive Director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change

This article was originally posted by the University of Memphis Alumni Association. Read the original article through this link.

Breach of the U.S. Capitol: A Moment to Reaffirm the Legacies of Non-Violent Movements and to Reject Mob Actions

(This statement was originally posted on Jan. 8, 2021).

Photograph of the United States CapitolThe seditious riot at the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters on January 6, 2021 was a direct attack on our democracy and the electoral process.  It was sickening. Despite hundreds of years of oppression, suppression, marginalization, and being called the most dehumanizing of names, African Americans have embraced non-violent movements and remained vigilant, despite all odds, to advance the cause for civil rights. African Americans are committed to advancing the best of this nation despite a deeply flawed U.S. Constitution that initially did not recognize African Americans as full human beings.

The conduct of the rebellious mob is inexcusable. A police officer and four other people are dead because of their conduct. This mob must be held accountable.

Moreover, we cannot overlook the obvious. This mob was given more deference in their destructive, deadly conduct, than peaceful African Americans who protested both in the 1960s during the civil rights movement, and today when Black Lives Matter protestors, both black and white, are protesting police brutality.

In this moment, while hurt and anger might encourage us to do so, we cannot become disheartened, disillusioned, or depressed because of the mob’s actions. If we do so, the enemies of democracy, freedom, and equality have won.

All who believe in the dignity of human life and the right of all people to civil and human rights, must continue to advocate for equality and justice. Let the outrageous conduct of the mob at the Capitol reaffirm the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, the Honorable John Lewis and many others that moral persuasion, non-violent movements, fair and free elections, among other civic acts, places the nation on a brighter future for all people.

 

Daphene R. McFerren,
Executive Director, Hooks Institute.

Reflections of a First Time Voter

By Jazmyne Wright, University of Memphis Student

An "I Voted" sticker.
An “I Voted” sticker. 6 May 2014. Dwight Burdette. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

November 3, 2020. My family and I were up at 6 in the morning and at the polls by 6:20 A.M. It was about 34 degrees, so we sat outside of Lewisburg High School in lawn chairs with hoodies and coffee. There were at least twelve people in line when we arrived at the school. I remember setting my alarm the night before, feeling worried that the line would be long. We waited for about thirty minutes before they opened the school. We all started filing in and soon the halls were lined with voters. The wait was reasonable, but the lines extended outside and wrapped around the school because we were all standing six feet apart. We did, however, discuss the Mississippi flag and the medical marijuana amendments on the ballot. Filling out my ballot took about as long as it took us to brew our coffee that morning, no more than five minutes.

I decided I would skip the sensationalism and hype and wait until the morning to hear the results. Of course, things did not happen that way.

Being a young voter, I did not vote because of taxes, medical insurance, or salary gaps.  I didn’t know the first thing about tax cuts or universal healthcare (until I volunteered with a local campaign). What prompted me to vote was education. Seeing the implicit bias towards black students prompted me to reflect on more than just the current President’s policies. I considered how bias and local elections play a large part in the academic experiences and development of our youth.

A common feeling that most Generation Z Voters in the South share is discouragement from what local and state elections are like in red states. Oftentimes, voters do not realize just how much power local elections hold over their communities, infrastructure, and schools. It is important for young voters to know their resources early on that they can use to research candidates and their policies for local and national elections.

Jazmyne Wright, University of Memphis Student

We have to be sure young people have the means and the incentive to vote, such as transportation. During casual discussions among my peers at The University of Memphis about how voting can be more accessible for students, most of my peers said that not having a ride to the polls was a common issue.  Another issue was out-of-state students not being able to get home during school to vote. Then there is the matter of incentive to vote. In the time of police killings, young people are starting to question the American criminal justice system. People do not believe that voting has any direct effect on police brutality. In actuality, voting for local offices like District Attorney and Prosecutor is significant when it comes to justice for police-involved killings. Hosting virtual events aimed at educating youth about elections and politics is a great way to engage young voters. Another great way to engage young voters is to give them a platform and show that you value their voice. This can be done with panels, mentorships, and internships.

I got my start in civic engagement and social justice advocacy by launching a petition to implement ethnic hair into the cosmetology curriculum of Shelby County Schools. Voting is important, no doubt, but it is not the only means of civic engagement and social justice that youth can take part in. For instance, I joined Pumps and Politics 901 as Executive Director two years ago. Pumps and Politics is a youth-led, nonpartisan political organization geared towards involving young women in the political process and encouraging civic engagement. This organization was founded by award-winning activist and Memphis native, Marissa Pittman. My work with Pumps and Politics 901 allowed me to connect with other young women of color interested in mostly civic engagement and activism. Generally, most young activists are forced to organize and speak among themselves. While I have never referred to myself as an activist, I try to recognize the work of others while I speak up and advocate for social change and justice. There are certain barriers to youth activism. Sometimes it is hard to dedicate copious amounts of time to something that does not pay, though I do not think this should allow you to lose sight of what is truly important.

Seven million young people voted in this election, that is incredible! However, our work does not end with voting. Young people need to continue organizing and speaking. We need to continue learning and growing into the leaders we have always admired in our communities. If there is a change you see that needs to take place, do not wait until you have a degree or a title. Act now, speak now. Your voice is just as valid as everyone else’s at the table. Whether you bring fresh ideas or carry the torch handed down to you, your work and your courage is necessary.

WE THE PEOPLE MUST FIX THIS – THE MURDER OF GEORGE FLOYD BY THE POLICE

Over the last two weeks, many people, both black and white, have contacted me expressing their outrage over the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 by the police asking “What can I do? Where do we start to fix this problem?” They, like me, know that police brutality and racism are not just a Black people’s problem; it’s an American problem, which makes it a white people’s problem too.

I commend the protestors who are demanding justice for George Floyd and other African Americans who were murdered at the hands of the police. However, we must prepare to relieve protestors, who can’t stay on the frontlines of street demonstrations indefinitely, with sustained action to transform policing and racist practices in America. What can you do?

  • Learn with an open mind: Educate yourself and your children about the origins of American racism, focusing on how slavery, the civil war, the civil rights movement and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, among others, have been efforts to perfect the America’s political, legal and social system from the vestiges of slavery and continued racism. There are numerous online resources that provide accurate and accessible information. This education is especially critical in white communities where individuals do not confront racist practices in policing and other areas of daily life.
  • Grow where you are planted: Start consistent and ongoing conversations with people within your sphere of influence, such as the workplace, church, temple, country club, fraternity or sorority, neighborhood association, golfing group, book club, etc., about what each of you can do to make a positive difference in addressing policing and other community problems that arise because of race. Be courageous enough to hold yourself accountable, speak up, and hold people in your networks and circles accountable for their words, actions, and even silence.
  • Donate: Many organizations, including the Hooks Institute, work toward a mission to uplift communities of color and the poor. Your donated dollars will support work taking place every day for justice and equality.
  • Vote: Racism has no place in local, state or national politics. It’s not a liberal, moderate or conservative thing. Racism is a lack of character thing. Character must come before the elected office.
  • Meet with your elected officials: City, County, and Congressional leaders serve us. Demand an accounting of their efforts to address police reform and systemic racial bias against Black and brown people.
  • Prepare for a marathon, not a sprint: Although Mr. Floyd was physically killed by the four Minneapolis police officers, the officers’ conduct is connected to an historical backdrop of customs and practices that have injured and suppressed advancement of Black people for centuries. This backdrop makes it a Herculean task to accomplish systemic changes. Movements for racial equality and justice are, therefore, never swift but morally and ethically imperative.

The horrific murder of George Floyd is a call to action by each of us to end police brutality and racism. Only in this way, can African Americans and other brown people enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – a promised made to each us in the Declaration of Independence and by the U.S. Constitution. We the People have work to do. Please get started. Now.

Daphene R. McFerren is the executive director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis.

To support the Hooks Institute’s mission of teaching, studying and promoting civil rights and social change visit memphis.edu/benhooks/donate.