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Civil Rights Activism, From Martin Luther King To Black Lives Matter


On this day, when we remember the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the U.S. is in the middle of another racial struggle, the Black Lives Matter movement. Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad has studied the parallels between these two movements. He's the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. Welcome.

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: Thank you much for having me.

SHAPIRO: It's easy to look at these two movements half a century apart and say they're the fruit of the same tree. How much similarity really is there between Dr. King's civil rights movement and the Black Lives Matter movement of today?

MUHAMMAD: There's a lot of similarity in recognizing that there are huge disparities that exist in this nation, and bringing attention to those disparities in ways that are about visibility for the suffering of the others and something that Dr. King called a confrontation with strength and dignity. The notion of nonviolent is the cornerstone of the early civil rights movement. It was not a nonviolence by birth. It was a nonviolence by training, and the young people of that movement of 50 years ago committed themselves to understanding the movement so that they could inspire others. The young people of the Black Lives Matter movement are doing the same, except their audience is a national audience through social media as well as the local organizing that goes on. But I will add this. They are fundamentally committed to moving past what they call respectability politics. They want to suggest that the work of transforming America now means that everyone is entitled to their human dignity and their due process. And if they don't speak perfect English, if they've not graduated from high school, they still deserve respect in this nation.

SHAPIRO: There also seems to be a difference between sort of whether you're looking inward or outward, whether the message is directed towards the community itself or towards those who are interacting with the community.

MUHAMMAD: There's no question that the Black Lives Matter movement has dual messaging. On one hand, it is incredibly explicit in ways that are not nuanced. In some ways, on this Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, we really remember the best of his rhetorical genius and capacity to make us feel good about what we were capable of. The Black Lives Matter movement is not interested in that right now. They're really interested in wrestling with the litany of disparity data on how blacks are treated in the criminal justice system versus in public schools, so on and so forth. In that way, they reject some of the ways in which they've heard a lot of the aspirational rhetoric. So that's a commitment to truth-telling in a way that Dr. King was much less likely to do on the grand stage than he was in some of the churches that he spent so much time in.

SHAPIRO: You know, we're talking about these two moments in time, from the 1960s and the present day, but there's obviously a continuity. How do we connect what's happened in the intervening half-century between these two movements?

MUHAMMAD: On one hand, we didn't take Dr. King's warning about the importance of history lessons. When he wrote "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos Or Community?" he wanted us to learn from what had worked in the civil rights movement and the work that remained necessary to do. That got watered down somehow. I will say for my generation of Gen Xers (ph), we were told, generally speaking, to just look forward - don't look back - and to embrace all the opportunities that are right in front of you. I think we got ahead of ourselves. I think the fact is that we needed to be vigilant and take more seriously that Dr. King didn't die of old age. He died because he was assassinated, and he was assassinated in part because he challenged this nation to restructure its fundamental values, and those values include the full recognition of the dignity of black people. That is the work that remains today.

SHAPIRO: Do you think Dr. King would look at this movement today and heave a sigh that in 2016, these are still contentious issues? Or would he be proud that the fight continues, and the ball is moving forward, and people haven't given up the struggle?

MUHAMMAD: All of the above.


MUHAMMAD: At every step along the way from 1955 and the bus boycott movement until his dying day, he had to make a case not just to politicians, not just to a broader community of Americans, but to other activists in the movement itself when he said a legal strategy is insufficient. He told the NAACP and other organizations we can't just win this in court. We've got to transform this society. And so I think he would applaud so many people today who see that the work is still beyond our courts, still beyond our politicians, and he would most certainly say to them, like so many have said to me over the years; up in Harlem, the struggle continues.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad is the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. Thanks so much for speaking with us, and happy MLK Day.

MUHAMMAD: Thank you, Ari. Same to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.