Charles Blow Talks “The New Civil Rights Movement” at Brown University

21 Sep

Charles Blow, John Hazen White Lecture, Brown University, September 2015

Charles Blow delivers John Hazen White lecture at Brown University, September 18, 2015

Last Thursday, I was fortunate to attend the John Hazen White Lecture at Brown University given by The New York Times journalist, and author, Charles Blow.

Mr. Blow, 45, who began at the Times in 1994 as a graphics editor, later went on to gain experience there as a journalist covering stories on the war in Iraq, as well as on 9/11. As a current Op-Ed writer for the Times, Blow focuses on politics and social justice, and is the author of the 2014 memoir, Fire Shut Up In My Bones.

Tricia Rose, Professor of Africana Studies at Brown, and an author as well, introduced Mr. Blow.  As I settled in my cushioned aisle seat and listened to Professor Rose under the glow of the soft auditorium lighting, I couldn’t help but feel special–special to be sitting inside the walls of this historic university, in the company of great, contemporary minds, listening to a discussion on a subject I’m passionate about; race in America.

Mr. Blow opened with an unflinching, graphic account of Emmett Till’s savage murder, as he called it, saying that Till’s death sixty years ago was the Big Bang, the catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement.  Blow informed the crowd of students, professors, and community members present that early Civil Rights Movement activist, Rosa Parks, was heard to say that she didn’t give up her bus seat because she was physically tired, but because she was “tired of giving in.”

Now, Mr. Blow noted, there is a repeat of that same fatigue.  We see young people becoming activists who are tired of the bias, the deaths, the criminal justice system, the excessive force used on young, black bodies, and the interaction between communities of people of color and the police.  Referring to today’s movement while linking it to the initial movement in this country decades earlier. Mr. Blow said, “Emmett Till was the first Black Lives Matter case.”

It was sad to then hear Mr. Blow immediately get into how the Black Lives Matter movement is now being devalued and feared.  No stranger to this news myself, Mr. Blow recounted how the movement was recently labelled a hate group, and told of the deflections white people use to devalue the meaning and mission of the movement, and the very individuals working to make positive change in this country.  I’ve been involved in countless talks and ranting threads on social media that prove this devaluation that Mr. Blow spoke of.  There’s the repetitive call to focus on “black on black violence,” and the announcing that racism is over, and that we all have the same opportunities delusional statements. Mr. Blow called these thoughts ridiculous. and said it’s like telling the AIDS activist “you should be focusing on heart disease and obesity–those are the real problems in this country.”  He added, “This is not a contest.  The movement is addressing a real problem, and its efforts are noble and worthy. It prioritizes blackness in a country that marginalizes people of color, and was built on inequities.  It confronts our laws instead of whisking them away.”

While noting that veterans of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement bequeath wisdom and lessons of their struggle on younger activists, this New Civil Rights Movement in this time and place requires different tactics.  Many of the young people, Blow included, were either not alive, or old enough to remember or experience the early Civil Rights era.  To those people, it is more academic, than experiential.  Mr. Blow noted his own awakening came in 1991, with the Rodney King beating and police officers’ subsequent acquittal, and the 1997 vicious race-based murder of James Byrd.  These incidents shattered Mr. Blow’s dreamy vision of perpetual progress made by people of color in this country. And, with the past several years of countless deaths of innocent black people at the hands of primarily, police officers,  “Now is their experiential moment,” stated Blow.

Blow spoke of how black Millennials shun and have a mistrust for institutions, government, and corporations in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, of their communities sucked dry of their fathers, brothers, and sons with mass incarceration, of parents telling their children how to behave in the presence of police officers, or just living their lives in general, their psyche’s internalizing the lesson that the black body is to be feared. They’re tired of the war on drugs, the war on crime, of bias. Of how nothing can guarantee survival, let alone success, of the lack of empathy for black people. Though they may organize and produce calls-to-action differently than their predecessors, Blow says, today’s activists are like Rosa Parks, tired of giving in.

Mr. Blow next described in detail the last moments of Tamir Rice’s life.  In his telling of Emmett Till’s death, and Tamir’s, I am thankful that Mr. Blow spares no details, and asks me, all of us, to search our own humanity, to be present and accountable, to witness, and if for even a moment, to be the feared, young, twelve-year old black boy on the playground taking his last breaths, without his sister being allowed to hold him, as Mr. Blow recounted, instead she’s violently tackled and pushed into a police car, helplessly having to watch, while the police officers stand by, offering no treatment or aid, letting Tamir, a twelve-year old boy, die. I don’t know how any of us cannot feel a deep, heavy, aching sadness, a rage against the inhumanity of this moment, and the countless other moments of inhumanity that this country has experienced in just these past few years, with the witnessing now more  accessible via the use of cell phone recording,  and the spreading of news instantly on all forms of social media.

In comparing and contrasting the New Civil Rights Movement to the earlier movement, Mr. Blow remembered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call for love, while today’s activists often call for rage.  While King’s idea of non-violence had to rely on faith, today’s activists call for a revolt, which Blow noted was how this country was founded.  Yet, it is not a call to violence by these new activists. Though the media still seems to want to focus on the small handful of people, not even associated with the Black Lives Movement or other activists, who have resorted to rioting during the excessive and restrictive show of force by the police during the Ferguson and Baltimore protests, I remember how Dr. King said, that “rioting is the voice of the unheard.”  I understand, just as DeRay McKesson, one of the leaders of the New Civil Rights Movement said, “I don’t have to condone it, to understand it.”

Still, Mr. Blow, like many other black people in this country, can’t help but be fatigued by the questioning of white America when they ask, “where did this anger come from?” as if the three to four hundred years of slavery, and inequities for black people in America never happened.  Blow asked the question, “How can we heal, when America likes to hide its sins?”

In closing, Mr. Blow remembered a quote from Dr. King that says no one of sound consciousness wants violence, followed by this quote from Nora Zeale Hurston: “If you are silent about your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

I unfortunately had to leave right before the Q & A, but my friend, Ilira who sat beside me said that the session was just as compelling as the lecture. Her take-away: “Get educated and know the history, and affect change in your own spheres of influence.”

To that, I will echo the great Ms. Hurston and say that I cannot be silent about not only my pain, but right now more importantly, about others’ pain, and I continue to believe it is my duty to, as Ilira says, to affect change in the ways I am able to.


Photo credit:  Brown & Providence









2 Responses to “Charles Blow Talks “The New Civil Rights Movement” at Brown University”

  1. Sherry Gordon September 22, 2015 at 8:44 am #

    Dear Wendy Jane,

    Hello, there, Wendy Jane, my so, so very dearly special and dearest and precious white and Jewish friend and sister who you are For Always so, so very much!!!!! I so, so very much love, like, and cherish you, sister, and this very powerful and brilliantly composed blog post article, Wendy Jane!!!!!!!I can tell just how hard you worked to create this article with such so very dear and thorough attention to detail in all of your very fine and excellent points with such sensitive, heartfelt love and care, sister!!!!!!! Your very dear precious heart, sisterfriend, and your very deep and special love for all of us as black persons, and in fact your dear spirit and love for humanity in general, and your yearning for not only racial justice, fairness, and equity but also for human kindness in general, I just so love and cherish about you, Wendy Jane!!!!!! You are such a deeply kind person who is very caring, sensitive, and loving, Wendy Jane!!!!!!

    Wow, what an impressive man Cbarles Blow is for certain! I am just so very thrilled and happy for you, sister, that you were able to see him and to listen to him speak!!!!! What a grand opportunity this was for you, my friend, and for the others, my sisterfriend!!!!!! I value and appreciate so his great dedication and activism! I love so and like so how the young black millenials are connecting to their agency and power in their activism. It’s so very interesting to me that some of the young black millenials see the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and the 1960s as having been more academic. It is interesting as well to read as you so well described and explained, sister, how these young people think that the New Civil Rights Movement requires different tactics and an actual revolt. I’m very alarmed and saddened, too, at how some folks see Black Lives Matter as a hate group fomenting hate and violence towards the police. Black Lives Matter is very much indeed a good and a loving group proactively and productively advocating for the betterment and the very safety of black lives. The extreme people who incite hate and violence towards the police do not represent our wonderful Black Lives Matter, my sister!!!!!! You also so finely detailed with such beautifully eloquent composition, Wendy Jane, how Charles Blow spoke of the repeat of the same fatigue in how our young black millenials despite this repetitive same fatigue persevere and are so brave, undaunted, and determined to meet formidable challenges in fighting for black lives, racial justice, equity, and fairness.

    Sister, your dearest and darling heart is just so loving and precious in your own quest for racial justice as the very loyal and steadfast white sister and anti-racist ally who you are For Always, Wendy Jane!!!!! You, sisterfriend, and your so very dear allyship in solidarity and your advocacy just mean so, so very much to me, sister!!!!!!! I so, so love and like your very special and beautifully precious and lovely, loving words on how you cannot be silent about you own pain and others’ pain, and in how you do whatever you are able to do to affect change!!!!!! I so, so love and like your dearest heart and spirit in all you do so very well as a proactively productive white anti-racist ally and as a true sister, my dearest and darling friend Wendy Jane!!!!!! I thank-you, thank-you, thank-you so, so very much and so, so very profusely straight from my very heart from the deepest depths of my very heart For Always, Wendy Jane!!!!!! You are so very for real and so sincere, sister!!!!!! Thank-you!!!!!!

    Please have a totally terrific and a thrilling Tuesday, and a wondrously wonderful week, Wendy Jane!!!!! Wow, you and your marvelously empowering article have inspired me so and just made my day even brighter and better, sisterfriend!!!!!!

    Very Warmly and Sincerely For Always, my dearly special and precious white and Jewish sisterfriend who you are For Always so, so very much, Wendy Jane, with Peace and Love To You For Always, and with Blessings and Even More Blessings To You For Always, my friend,

    Your lesbian black sisterfriend For Always in solidarity, Sherry Gordon

    • Wendy Jane September 22, 2015 at 5:36 pm #


      What would I do without you? Not write so much, and feel good about my writing, that’s for sure. Thanks for all of your attentive reading, and taking in and responding to every detail in the post. I know how important these matters are to you and feel your support for the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as for the work of other young activists of color, working on the ground to bring about real change. Thank you for your unwavering support, which keeps me keeping on.

      Your white sisterfriend:) in solidarity,
      Wendy Jane

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