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Who is the King of Today’s Civil Rights Movement?

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It’s hard to watch Selma without thinking of Ferguson. The shooting of unarmed Jimmie Lee Jackson echoes the death of Michael Brown. The voting rights marches resemble the walk-outs and die-ins in Ferguson, New York, and D.C. Even Common drops a lyrical reference to Ferguson in Selma’s ending credits.

One striking difference between civil rights activism in the sixties and today is that there is no central charismatic leader like Martin Luther King, Jr. Even key players that were once regarded as the foremost civil rights advocates, such as Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and the NAACP, are losing their former glory, criticized by a younger generation of activists for pursuing political gain and hogging the media spotlight.

In today’s movement, it might not be necessary to fill that lead. While history textbooks and Hollywood movies focus on King, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was a complex one that featured many leaders and organizations, often with conflicting visions. Driven by a diverse set of young people and enabled by social media, today’s resurgence of civil rights activism is modeled not after King’s charismatic leadership but after the Civil Rights Movement’s more grassroots organizations.

“Ferguson is hearkening back to older forms of organizing that run up against the standard narrative of the civil rights movement and civil rights leaders like Dr. King or Malcolm X,” said Eddie Glaude, Jr., chair of Princeton’s Center for African American Studies. “It’s a very decentralized model: different organizations with different personalities. It looks a lot like SNCC in its beginnings.”

Though Selma portrays the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as two angry young men whose fight for voting rights floundered until King swooped in, SNCC (pronounced “snick”) was the most active and most influential student-led organization of the Civil Rights Era.
Groups that have inherited SNCC’s model of organizing include Ferguson Action, Dream Defenders, and the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice.

Social media has been the lifeblood of today’s civil rights movement. In the sixties, SNCC had to publish newsletters to communicate with every field office and send workers to remote parts of the south to publicize its efforts, all of which necessitated staff and funding. The proliferation of Facebook and Twitter has made it possible for small grassroots groups and even individuals to quickly rally action without the need for established channels. Take December’s Millions March NYC protest for example. A demonstration that attracted over 50,000 people and shut down traffic in Manhattan was the product of two young women, Umaara Elliott and Synead Nichols, and a Facebook event.

For Million Hoodies, social media is more than just a tool for coordinating actions. It has also incited more people to join the movement. Just as media coverage of police brutality against protesters in the sixties attracted national support for the Civil Rights Movement, so do shares of Darren Wilson’s interview with George Stephanopoulos or video footage of Erin Garner’s death.

“It’s hard to sit back on the sidelines and watch someone get put in a chokehold and get murdered on the street that was clearly unarmed and screaming, ‘I can’t breathe.’ When you see that—no matter who you are, what your political views are—it’s hard not to have a reaction,” Haviland-Eduah said.

The ability of grassroots groups to leverage their personal stake in the issue and intimate knowledge of the community is just one of the advantages of a decentralized approach to civil rights. Another is the speed and flexibility of groups to adapt to changing situations on the ground, skirting the sluggishness of hierarchical decision-making. Most importantly, a movement built not on supporting charismatic leadership, which reduces everyone else to followers, but on encouraging individuals to become leaders in their own communities can empower marginalized voices, especially those of women, queer individuals, and youth.

What today’s civil rights movement needs is not a leader like MLK. SNCC and the grassroots projects that have inherited its legacy have shown us that, instead, the movement must empower people to become leaders themselves.