By Yamiche Alchidor
Protests against police treatment of Black people have laid bare growing tensions between longstanding civil rights groups that have battled discrimination for decades and new groups of leaders who want an edgier approach.
Activists who spurred demonstrations across the country after a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old Black man in Ferguson, Mo., now demand a prominent voice in a national conversation about race, challenging the primacy of established civil rights organizations such as Al Sharpton’s National Action Network and the NAACP. While the newer activists may share goals with more experienced groups, they have clashed with them in attempts at joint efforts.
That divide went on public display this month at a march organized by Sharpton in Washington, D.C., when activist Johnetta Elzie, 25, and other protesters pushed to the front of the stage and demanded a share of the spotlight.
“This movement was started by the young people,” Elzie, of St. Louis, said at the Dec. 13 march. “We started this. There should be young people all over this stage. This should be young people all up here.”
It was the second time in the last five months that Ferguson protesters had chastised the old guard. In October, during an interfaith service in St. Louis, young activists interrupted the program by heckling speakers and shouting for a place on stage. Eventually, several clergy members ceded their spots to protesters, who told the crowd that NAACP President Cornell William Brooks was out of touch.
“This ain’t your grandparents’ civil rights movement,” rapper and activist Tef Poe said onstage. “A lot of us are not scholars. We’re not trained organizers. We are not professional activists. We are just real people who identified a problem and decided to do something about it.”
The tactics employed by Ferguson protesters demonstrate a shift toward more daring actions for civil rights, said William Chafe, a history professor at Duke University who wrote a book on North Carolina’s sit-in movement. Similarly, he said, in the early 20th century, activists moved from polite letter-writing campaigns pleading for an end to segregation to boycotts and civil disobedience.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., is 74 now, but in 1963 he was 23, and the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. Lewis’s moment at the podium was also borne out of conflict with tactics favored by the civil rights establishment.
Young people who longed for bolder action and quicker government response formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which received some support and mentorship from older activists in the 1960s, Lewis said. Still, Thurgood Marshall, then the head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, criticized the group for staging sit-ins at segregated lunch counters that led to arrests and beatings by whites angered at their presence, Lewis recalled. Marshall instead favored litigating for civil rights in the courts.
Lewis, who was the national chairman of SNCC, told Marshall that the movement needed more than a few lawyers arguing before the Supreme Court to change the status of black people in the U.S.
“We need a mass movement,” Lewis said he told Marshall at the time. “And that’s why we continued to go on the freedom rides, that’s why we continued to sit-in, that’s why we continued to march. And I think that’s what is needed today.”
Lewis said he sees his younger self in the radical protesters who seek to bring attention to the cause with demonstrations that inconvenience people and disrupt everyday life.
“If you see something that’s not right, that is not fair, that is not just, you have an obligation to speak up, act up and make some noise, and young people must be free to do that,” Lewis said. “When I see these young men and young women marching and speaking, I say that’s me when I had all my hair and (was a) few pounds lighter.”
Sharpton criticized the protesters who interrupted the Washington, D.C., march for taking what he characterized as an “arrogant approach” that disrespects the decades of protest work he and civil rights leaders have done.
The differences in approach don’t stem from a generational divide, Sharpton told USA TODAY, noting that his National Action Network includes a youth division. Several teenagers affiliated with his organization went to jail during protests that preceded the death of Michael Brown, he said.
“In the end, we are all fighting for the same thing,” Sharpton said. “I’ve gone out of my way not to attack any of them because I’m not trying to fight them. I’m trying to do what I do and support justice for everybody. I ain’t got no beef.”
Younger protesters helped organize the D.C. march this month and were scheduled to speak as part of the program, Dominique Sharpton, 28, Sharpton’s daughter, told USA TODAY. She called Elzie’s behavior “disrespectful.”
“No one ever tried to exclude them,” she said.
Following the event, the battle continued on Twitter when Dominique Sharpton referred to it as “Al Sharpton’s march.” She deleted the tweet after some Ferguson protesters criticized her for claiming ownership of the march for her father.
Elzie, who called Al Sharpton “out of touch,” doesn’t regret stepping on stage without being called up. She said she doesn’t think the young protesters from Ferguson would have had a chance to speak without asserting themselves.
“Calm is not getting us anywhere,” she said. “Police brutality does not give a damn if you’re organized or not. It does not care if you’re on time or not. It doesn’t care about respectability.”
Protester Leon Kemp, 33, of St. Louis, said the incident with Sharpton and the ensuing discussions exposed a “generational divide.”
Current protesters differ from the 1960s college students who marched in pressed suits and deferred to their elders, Elzie and Kemp said. Today’s protesters include clergy, professors and high school dropouts with criminal records and some have a raw style that incorporates cursing to get their points across.
“We didn’t invent protesting, but we are showing people that you don’t have to be afraid of the police,” Kemp said. “This was not a movement for ‘respectable negroes.’ If we were respectable in August, we wouldn’t have had a march in D.C.”
That passion swayed Rev. Traci Blackmon, 51, pastor of Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Mo., who confessed before a group gathered at a church in New York that at first she found the massive street protests unsettling.
“I was one of the people who asked them to get out of the street and I’m one of the people who is glad they didn’t listen to me,” Blackmon, said. “If they had gotten out of the street that day and never gotten back in the street, we wouldn’t still be talking about Michael Brown.”
Andrea Young, whose father, Andrew Young, worked with King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said the experience of the 1960s showed that activists could disagree but ultimately work together.
SNCC members heckled King and sarcastically called him the “The Lord” as he spoke at organizational meetings, she said. Often, though, the leaders set aside their differences to achieve common goals, she said.
“People had different ideas about the strategy and there was tension but also dialogue,” she said.
Ultimately, the people of Ferguson simply want the injustices addressed, resident Nathan Burns, 25, said. He doesn’t care, he said, if the protesters in his neighborhood come from traditional organizations or the unnamed groupings that came after Brown’s death.