Protest Politics and the Jena Generation: Lessons for 21st-Century Black Leaders

By Hotep, Uhuru | Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Protest Politics and the Jena Generation: Lessons for 21st-Century Black Leaders


Hotep, Uhuru, Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy


INTRODUCTION

This essay lays the foundation for a paradigm shift in Black leadership practice by exposing the limitations of protest politics and its major tactic, the mass march. If we are to achieve real power as a community of African people in 21st-century America, present-day Black leaders must subject even their most cherished practices, like the mass march, to critical analysis. Without this critical analysis, future Black leaders may settle for leading noisy demonstrations that end up strengthening the powers against whom we struggle. This we must prevent at all cost. As much as our tradition is our guide, we must not be blinded by it. Times and conditions change. What was yesterday's solution may be today's problem. And so it is with protest politics and the mass march in particular.

BACKGROUND

According to historian Peter Bergman (1969), Africans in the United States have been petitioning the White power structure for redress of our grievances since 1769. During the first six decades of the 19th century, Black leaders like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth organized dozens of rallies, made hundreds of speeches, and submitted numerous petitions to White America's political and religious leaders, North and South, demanding the abolition of slavery. Their rallies, speeches, and petitions were largely ignored, so it took a bloody civil war (1861-1865) to end chattel slavery in this country.

The first series of 20th century mass protest marches led by African Americans was organized during the period 1919-1925 by NAACP activists Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. DuBois. Designed to pressure Congress into passing legislation outlawing lynching as a federal crime, these early efforts at protest politics failed to achieve their stated goal, though they did succeed in placing the protest march into our political vocabulary.

Over the past forty years, the protest march, perfected during the civil rights era (1955-1970), has emerged as our preferred method of voicing our collective grievances to the White power structure. Sanctioned by the U.S. Constitution, held in public spaces, and directed at the White political establishment, the protest march, like a safety valve, has been extremely effective at siphoning off pent-up Black frustration and anger, but in a fashion that leaves our adversaries intact and empowered.

THE IMPORTANCE OF JENA

The 20 September 2007 mobilization that attracted 60,000 Black youth and their supporters to the backwater hamlet of Jena, LA, to protest the injustice meted out to six Black high school students breathed new life into our fading protest tradition. Columnist Steven Ward wrote in the 10 October 2007 edition of Black Agenda Report that many in his generation viewed the Jena mobilization as a "rekindling of the spirit of the civil rights movement" when wide-spread discontent with institutional racism stirred thousands of ordinary Black people to behave in extraordinary ways. According to CNN's Web site on 21 September 2007 alone, both Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton voiced similar sentiments. However, before we embark upon yet another round of marching and protesting, let us first review the strengths and weakness of our protest tradition as revealed by the Jena 6 mobilization.

STRENGTHS OF THE JENA MOBILIZATION

First, in an article published in The Michigan Citizen and then quoted in Ward's article, Amber Jefferies, a seventh-grade student from Detroit, reported that for her the Jena march was a "life-changing" event. Sister Amber speaks for thousands of Black youth who marched in Jena or who participated in post-Jena demonstrations. Our protest tradition is extremely powerful. It often makes a deep and lasting impact on those who participate in it. Coming together with tens of thousands of our people to collectively voice our discontent is heady stuff. It's euphoric and literally mesmerizing, but only temporarily. …

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