Civil Rights

A more thoughtful noise

“Nobody’s gon’ help us if we don’t help ourselves.” 

That quote is nowhere in the Bible, and it’s likely the Rev. Al Sharpton knows it. It’s a slightly modified version of “God helps those who help themselves”—another self-help adage that conditions divine provision on human sufficiency.

From a biblical standpoint, it makes no sense.

The line does make for a good soundbite—a call to arms in a community that’s had enough. It’s a wonder what the family of Michael Brown made of it as Sharpton uttered it at their son’s funeral.

New York magazine, in a likely burst of hometown pride, encouraged readers on its Daily Intelligencer blog to “watch Al Sharpton bring the house down.” Because that’s precisely what funerals are for.

Someone on Twitter kept it short and solemn: “No, thanks.” Media analysts, for their part, are already taking the speech apart. Trolls are not far behind.

Sharpton has preached a variation of the same sermon for decades—if not in churches, at all kinds of civil-rights rallies and demonstrations. Just Saturday, he was in Staten Island, New York, demanding justice for Eric Garner, the man who died in a police chokehold in July.

But is Sharpton’s message yielding results? Jesus once rebuked a fig tree for not bearing fruit, and the thing withered. In the parable of the sower, he lamented the seeds that fell on unfertile soil.

Could any of this apply to Sharpton?

A Fusion segment on Ferguson looked at the old-guard of the civil-rights movement vis-à-vis the young protesters who have taken to the streets. The cameras zeroed in on Jesse Jackson, and the images were familiar: He mingled with the crowds. He took selfies with residents. He held a child’s hand. People yelled into megaphones.

Eric Latham, a young Ferguson resident, wasn’t having any of it.

“We need young leaders to be leading this type of thing,” Latham told Mariana Atencio, the Fusion reporter. “We don’t need a 60-year-old man leading us through our own streets.” He bemoaned that Jackson and his entourage would soon be gone and Ferguson forgotten. (Jackson is 72.)

In his eulogy, Sharpton himself admitted he didn’t know where Ferguson was on a map prior to the protests. Latham’s concern may not be unfounded after all.

Maybe Ferguson is a sign that the old-guard in the civil-rights movement needs to hang it up. Maybe Ferguson is the flashpoint for a new, more thoughtful era in racial-justice activism—young men and women of color who maybe won’t pick up a megaphone to stir passions, but will pick up a smartphone and tweet a firestorm.

Antonio French. Ta-Nehisi Coates. Jelani Cobb. Yamiche Alcindor. Adam Serwer. Some are elected officials; others are writers, thinkers, and journalists. All of them communicate thoughtfully, write incisively, and have a way of neutralizing hate trolls with the stroke of a pen. Or a series of tweets.

Serwer, the newly minted national editor for BuzzFeed, wrote a feature on the history of racial protests in the United States. For BuzzFeed. You know—the viral-content site with the cats, quizzes, and listicles. What young people read these days.

None of them may feel comfortable at a pulpit or quoting Scripture, let alone consider themselves civil-rights leaders. But they write with heart and soul. They know history. Their words matter. But most of all, they care deeply.

At a time when the old civil-rights guard does more to polarize than to unify, maybe this is precisely the new guard of civil-rights activists young men like Latham need.


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