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For Black Lives Matter, MLK's kind of activism isn't the only way

Shifts in thought

Black Lives Matter activists reject the idea that any dynamic figurehead should embody their struggle today, and they think a more decentralized way of protesting better suits the times.

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Dozens of people gather for the start of the 2nd Annual MLK Thousand Man March – Break the Cycle, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, in Benton Harbor, Mich. The peaceful march, sponsored by the group Greater Young Men, was held in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the values he stood for.

Don Campbell/The Herald-Palladium/AP

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In years past, the civil rights mantle of Martin Luther King Jr. was taken up by other charismatic leaders, political figureheads such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton – each a skilled orator with roots in the black church, which in many ways is still the center of community life and politics for black Americans.

But as the country remembers Dr. King on Monday, a new generation of activists is doing things differently. Many within the Black Lives Matter movement are uncomfortable with venerating any "great man" of the past, and they reject the idea that any dynamic figurehead should embody their struggle today.

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Younger protesters are doing much of their work through social media, and they're deciding that the social conservatism of many black churches is part of mistakes of the past. Many of these activists also say that the Black Lives Matter Movement owes a greater debt to the organizing principles of Occupy Wall Street than to the civil rights movement.

“I think Black Lives Matter is right to reject some of what is called 'top-down leadership,' ” says Randal Jelks, professor of African-American studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

Indeed, many activists see the Black Lives Matter movement as consciously unmoored from the traditions of authoritative figures giving emotional, rousing speeches and becoming the face of a movement. And while King’s sweeping, prophetic visions of racial harmony still have their place, many think that the framework of the Occupy movement is a better fit with their aims.

“Occupy Wall Street was an early example of young people trying to think of new systems of not just how to communicate, but how to protest, how to dissent and that sort of thing,” says Louie Dean Valencia-García, a teaching fellow at Fordham University in New York and a historian who studies youth culture and emerging models of dissent.

“Occupy Wall Street promoted ‘consensus space decisionmaking’ – which is essentially a type of pluralism and which isn’t the same as a majority vote,” Mr. Valencia-García adds. “And I think Black Lives Matter has done this in many ways as well.”

With this changed outlook, a generational rift has grown between older civil rights activists and their younger counterparts.

“In the circles I’m in, there’s a lot of suspicion about the direction of Black Lives Matter leaders who say they’re not leaders,” says Mark Naison, professor of African-American studies at Fordham University. Without a strong, visible leadership, the movement could be “subject to very powerful forces, which are themselves hierarchical, and they have a lot of power and money to co-opt the movement.”

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Dr. Jelks, too, thinks some of the ideas about a decentralized leadership model and consensus decisionmaking can be “naive.” “That was the trouble with Occupy,” he says. “Everyone can’t always have an equal voice.”

And yet many in Black Lives Matter disregard traditional political movements. Last year, a number of protesters disrupted a Netroots Nation forum featuring Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley. Members of the movement also interrupted a campaign event for Hillary Clinton in Cleveland.

Black Lives Matter leaders say the absence of visible figureheads is also for reasons of safety.

“[A] movement with a singular leader or a few visible leaders is vulnerable, because those leaders can be easily identified, harassed, and killed, as was the case with Dr. King,” says the coalition’s website, BlackLivesMatter.com.

For some young activists considering King almost 50 years after his death, the issue is about how he tends to be portrayed.

“Part of our work in this generation has been about reclaiming MLK, and the ways that this government, in a lot of ways, has totally whitewashed his legacy,” Patrisse Cullors, an artist and activist in Los Angeles who is considered one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter, told NPR this past week.

“As a young kid growing up, what we were given was the 'Dream' speech,” Ms. Cullors continued, referencing King’s famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. “We weren't given his grass-roots organizing, we weren't given that King was a local organizer. We weren't given everything he did up until the Voting Rights Act. And when I joined this movement as a young person, I realized, oh, King is so much more.”

Not all young activists, however, are convinced that everything must be done differently. Some are open to Black Lives Matter taking multiple forms.

“I think where we are at is that we are open to a myriad of strategies and a myriad of tactics,” Opal Tometi, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, told The Atlantic last year. “We know that there are some people who will be inspired to work within the system as is. We’re not going to condemn them or denigrate all those actions.”

“We think that everybody, no matter where you are, no matter what your socioeconomic status is, whatever your job is – you have a duty in this moment in history to take action and stand on the side of people who have been oppressed for generations,” she added.

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that the last name of Louie Dean Valencia-García at Fordham is hyphenated.]