It’s a Thursday afternoon in room 38A, at the Washington Convention Center. The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation is holding its annual legislative conference. It’s a political home-coming. In the hall, smartly dressed policy makers, staff, activists and lobbyists, most of them black or brown, are creating a buzzing sound. In the packed room, the air is growing thick. John Lewis, the civil rights icon and a long-time democrat is speaking at a panel on how activists can influence the legislative process.
At age 76, John Lewis’ voice has lost none of its magic. He was a close ally of Dr. Martin Luther King and president of the influential Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Lewis was part of practically all important protests, sit-ins, and marches that marked the civil rights era of the 60s. He sat-in at lunch-counters in segregated department stores in the South, while white men put out cigarettes in his hair. He was one of the first freedom riders, who rode two interstate buses from Washington to the South in May 1961 to protest about segregation. He was one of the organizers for the March on Washington, one of the largest protest movements the country has seen to date. And he was seriously injured in 1965 during the March from Selma to Montgomery.
There are no Black Lives Matter activists on this panel – they are scarce in the conference’s program. The relationship between the old and the new movement for racial justice in the United States is not easy, to say the least. John Lewis tries to reach out to the younger generation. He has turned his life into a three volume graphic novel, “March”. He allowed his staff to put a video on Youtube showing him dancing to Colin Pharrel’s “Happy”. Asked about Black Lives Matter, he once said in an interview, Martin Luther King would have been proud of those young people. But he also keeps his distance. He doesn’t march with them. And his press spokesperson tells me he won’t comment on Black Lives Matter. When I ask around why, a staffer tells me that the movement is considered somewhat “murky”.
Others from Lewis’ generation have been openly hostile. Andrew Young, a lieutenant of Dr. Martin Luther King and a former US-ambassador to the United Nations, lashed out at Black Lives Matter protesters in July. “These kids can show off with no consequences”, he said and added he was afraid they might “mess up the climate we have taken 50 years to build.” Barbara Reynolds, a senior journalist and writer, has criticized Black Lives Matter activists for their confrontational tactics and divisive approach, for not being inclusive enough towards white supporters and other ethnic minorities: “At protests today, it is difficult to distinguish legitimate activists from the mob actors who burn and loot”, she wrote in August. “The demonstrations are peppered with hate speech, profanity, and guys with sagging pants that show their underwear.”
“I went to a men’s used clothes store in downtown Nashville, and I bought a used suit”, says John Lewis. A few minutes into his opening remarks, room 38a at the Washington Congressional Center is glued to his smooth voice. Lewis has taken the crowd back to 1960. He’s a sharecropper’s son. His family tried to make a living growing corn, peanuts, and breeding cows and chickens. After being denied a card for the local public library because he was black, he got involved in the civil rights movement, against the advice of his parents. “We heard we may get arrested and go to jail during the protests. And if I got arrested, I wanted to look good. I had very little money. But when I got arrested, I felt clean, fresh, I looked sharp.”
“I know too many people who decline to talk to people they don’t agree with”, says Laura Murphy, a lobbyist who runs her own government relations firm. We are half an hour into the discussion now and Lewis lets the other panelists talk. “I know too many people who decline to talk to Republicans”, Murphy goes on. “Somebody has to play the inside game, too. We accuse each too quickly to be the house-negroes.” The younger generation is represented by Marbre Stahly-Butts, who works for a New York based advocacy group, a fast talker, delivers a passionate speech, calling to “end the war on black people”. Lewis says, “let’s get in some trouble, some good trouble!” It’s meant to sound encouraging, but it sounds somewhat historic, out of context, unrelated to the present.
After the discussion, a tall young woman in an elegant rose dress gets up and asks John Lewis about Malcolm X. Wasn’t it the black power movement and the constant threat that Malcolm and his supporters might take up arms that really paved the way for King’s successful negotiations? John Lewis answers that just before his assassination in February 1964, Malcolm X was moving closer to the civil rights movement. “He wanted to be supportive. And I think, if Malcolm had lived, he would have been marching with us on Bloody Sunday, from Selma to Montgomery.” The young woman frowns, but says no more as she sits down and starts typing something on her mobile.
It wasn’t fetter that won the battles, as in Berthold Brecht’s poem “All of Us or None”, which I had heard chanted a few days earlier. John Lewis insists on this interpretation of history. To him, “All of Us” stands for solidarity.
When I asked Black Lives Matter-foundress Patrisse Cullors about her view of the civil rights movement during our interview in Oakland, she first says: “Our organization is about disruption, our organization values direct action. So did Martin Luther King.” But the type of leadership Martin Luther King embodies, the charismatic, lone, male, is something many in the younger generation reject. “It’s challenging not to have a central figure”, Patrisse Cullors admits, “but it’s a new generation and a new time.” Black Lives Matter is organized in 42 chapters, sometimes one chapter takes the lead, sometimes another. The power of Black Lives Matter derives from a swarm’s collective power. It’s the power of synergy, not solidarity.