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Professor explores racial movements

| Friday, February 19, 2016

Is there a difference between the civil rights movement and the Black Lives Matter movement? Is it one intergenerational movement? These are the questions students gathered to answer in a roundtable discussion Thursday in LaFortune Student Center.

The conversation, part of a Black History Month discussion series, was sponsored by Multicultural Peace, Equality and Community (MPEC), according to a University press release. There will be a discussion every Thursday of February, with the concluding lecture slated to occur Feb. 25.

Stuart Greene, associate professor of English with a joint appointment in the department of Africana Studies, moderated the discussion. He began by challenging students to identify similarities and differences between photographs from 1967 protests in Montgomery, Alabama, and the 2015 protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

“This is the kind of imagery that tells us that things haven’t really changed — things are the same,” Greene said. “What do these similarities say about the nation’s ‘progress’ towards eliminating racial violence? We gasp at the similarities. Here we are, 50 years later, and we’re still asking, ‘When did the police become so militarized?’ and the answer is, ‘About 50 years ago.’”

Greene said it is impossible to separate the civil rights movement from the Black Lives Matter movement, explaining there is no definite end to the movement.

“This has always been a human rights movement, [and that] is what I think makes this a continuous movement,” Greene said. “Calling it a civil rights movement actually limits what people are struggling with. If we only think about civil rights legislation and key leaders, we ignore what people are struggling for — human dignity and the ability to own spaces.

“It’s hard in some ways to think the movement ended in 1968. Whether you end the movement with the death of King or the demise of the Panthers, the struggle never ended. I don’t see when the movement stopped — it’s impossible to delineate where the civil rights movement ended and where the Black Lives Matter began.”

According to Greene, it is important to understand the way activism exists within material, discursive and social spaces. These spaces contribute to creating movements that challenge how power operates in law, institutions and media, Greene said.

“The movement was a series of movements in different parts of the country with different goals,” Greene said. “Is the goal integration? That is the goal the NAACP took up. Is the goal about work? We forget that the March on Washington was a march about work.

“It’s a response to any gains that black people get. You see that most acutely in different periods of time.”

The main struggle of the movement revolves around the disparity of opportunity, childhood poverty, mass incarceration and police brutality in America, Greene said.

“Jim Crowe now manifests himself in the mass incarceration of black men,” Greene said. “We see the ways in which protest can be criminalized. Most of those marching [in Birmingham] were youths — they were peaceful. Martin Luther King was simply arrested for peaceful protests. … Most of the adults at this time refused to participate in protest, because it was a threat to their lives and their livelihoods.”

According to Greene, it would be more apt to call the civil rights movement a “human rights movement.” Many think America is a police state that denies African-Americans basic rights and thus, unlike the civil rights movement, which moved through law or policy, the Black Lives Matter movement is an outcry for dignity and for opportunity, he said.

“We miss the point if we call the movement between 1948 and 1968 the civil rights movement when it was a struggle for larger issues,” Greene said. “I think the larger issue is, ‘Why is being black in this country a transgression?’”

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