As I jostled for precious few inches of legroom aboard a cramped Lehigh van headed to a march in Washington, D.C., I scrolled curiously through the event’s Facebook page. The protest, initially billed online as the “National March against Police Violence,” had its name changed to the “Justice for All March.”
“I’m extremely disappointed,” wrote one commenter. “You’re completely ignoring our experience.”
In changing the march’s name from a specific cause to a universal call for justice, many argued, the movement was ignoring the experience of those it was fighting for: the racial and ethnic minorities disproportionately subject to arrests and confrontations with police.
I’d seen these arguments before. In the aftermath of the tragic shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, citizens all over the web flocked to support the #BlackLivesMatter movement. But all the while, many continued to resist the #AllLivesMatter movement, perceived as co-opting the cause.
Though the goals of these movements seemed to coalesce, to this point we’ve failed to reconcile them and fully resolve their grievances. And this isn’t the first time in American history that this has happened.
Our nation touts the successful collaboration of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks in working with government officials to pass monumental legislation such as the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.
Reverend King’s famous dream of universal equality has since been commonly treated as an ever-approaching reality, something we’ve come immeasurably closer to achieving.
But while the segregation-era “Whites Only” signs have long been abolished, the impacts of racial inequality continues to be a pervasive part of life for millions of Americans. And they are felt far beyond recent instances of police violence.
Significantly higher poverty rates, lesser access to quality education, healthcare and transportation, along with disproportionate incarceration rates, are all features of the minority experience in the U.S.
Many of these points were, in fact, fought for and argued by Martin Luther King himself. But that is not usually what we remember or is shown in our history books.
We remember the Martin Luther King who fought for equality of treatment, or “Justice for All,” but not the one who fought against inequality of opportunity.
That latter concept requires acknowledging that need that is inevitably unequal, it requires recognizing the inequality of our experiences. And that is something many to this day feel uneasy admitting.
Reverend King’s rebuke of segregation and blatant discrimination are commonly cheered, while his campaigns for education reform, for equal pay or for workers’ rights are rarely discussed.
As these views were buried under the call of equality for all, a significant part of the oppression felt by African-Americans and others during the civil rights era was never addressed. And King wasn’t the only public figure to suffer from this effect.
As Lehigh’s “Malcolm X: 50 Years Later” conference gets set to remember the activist’s legacy, reflections on how his perspective has been misremembered could just guide us toward better understanding our present.
The polarizing Malcolm X is often remembered for his stance on violence as a means of self-defense rather than what he symbolized to countless others: a staunch advocate for the rights of a downtrodden minority class.
That very notion of violence as self-defense, now used to justify the shootings of many young African-Americans, was what caused many to ignore his perspective, to ignore his experience.
But regardless of how you feel about Malcolm X, or how you may feel about recent cases of police violence across the notion, one simply cannot ignore the experience of oppression felt by millions.
In criticizing a movement for its tactics rather than hearing its motives, we ostracize its cause from our discourse and worsen our community. This is particularly problematic when used to suppress the voices of those already marginalized.
We adopt the “Justice for All” mantra while never truly understanding what it takes to achieve it.
This trend regrettably extended even to our own campus, where just last year the “From Beneath the Rug” movement was quickly picked apart for its approach, rather than given its chance to bring to light existing inequalities on campus.
I ask you: What good does it do to squabble over protest methods when the roots of its motivations could take lifetimes to address?
You may not like what a movement is called. You may not like how its political actions are carried out. But if you see truth in its cause, you had better listen up.
It saddened me that day in D.C. to see protest organizers and supporters go back and forth over the name of the march. “It shouldn’t be like this,” I thought.
If we’re ever to make the changes needed to address racial, ethnic and other inequalities in this country, we simply need both perspectives. We need the universal principles of “Justice for All,” but also need the acknowledgment of specific experiences and grief.
We need both what Reverend King and Malcolm X had to say, but not just the parts we wanted to hear.
We need #BlackLivesMatter, #AllLivesMatter, #LGBTLivesMatter, #MuslimLivesMatter and many others. We need a coalition, and we need it now.
Malcolm X once said, “the future belongs to those who prepare for it today.”
So, who’s ready?