In the minds of most, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was ignited by a public outrage in response to the 2012 murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin from Sanford, Florida—a town with a 30 percent Black population and a slight white majority, just like most rural areas in the South. Florida, a state where white supremacy might as well be considered an official religion, was the third state to secede from the Union and join forces with the Confederacy. This is the same state that I call home.
The First #BLM Wave
Time and time again, I remind many of my socially conscious friends that the “first wave” (as I like to call it) of the BLM movement blossomed alongside an unfortunate seed of irony. Despite this international movement originating from the massive response to anti-Black terrorism in a small Southern town, this mainstream movement strangely had little impact on the lived experiences of Black people in the rural South.
One of my homeboys from Vicksburg, Mississippi, summed it up the best:
“Bruh…Black Lives Matter is some city n*gga shit…everybody know, Black lives ain’t never gonna matter down here.”
Let me be clear. By “down here,” he wasn’t talking about Atlanta, or Miami, or Charlotte, or even Birmingham. He was talking about the most hidden corners of the dirty South—the chalky red-clay dirt roads that even Dr. King would have been nervous to march down. He was talking about Chipley, Florida—Union Springs, Alabama—Lumpkin, Georgia—and countless other “out-of-the-way” towns that most U.S. residents have probably never heard of.
#BLM in the Trenches
For many Black people in the rural South, the first wave of the BLM movement was only something that unfolded on social media and television screens. Part of this lack of engagement stemmed from the racial trauma that Black people in our part of the country inherited from past generations. After all, this is where the majority of the lynchings and Klan rallies happened. And they still happen, but instead of white sheets, the predators now wear blue uniforms.
So, damn right. No matter how energized the “movement” seemed to be on CNN, Black people in areas like where Trayvon and me were raised were suspicious about hopping aboard the social justice train and addressing the ordinary oppression we experience every day. Down here, racial violence isn’t some abstract fiction you watch on HBO or read about in a Toni Morrison novel. It lives next door to you and greets you every morning when you wake up.
On top of that, we believed that if shit really hit the fan, no gung-ho college student from Harvard or Yale, or even Morehouse or Spelman, would be lining up to defend our interests, especially in towns where, to this day, white people celebrate Confederate Memorial Day just as religiously as they do Christmas.
The Second #BLM Wave
Black folk in the rural South weren’t afraid to speak up. No, we just wanted reassurance that, if we did, the federal government and the liberal media establishment would be there to support our efforts. Or would they fail to look our way like they always do? Because down here, demands for racial justice don’t merely involve government protests and mass boycotts. A fight for racial fairness in the rural South will inevitably indict neighbors, classmates, families, and even entire communities. The character of racial terrorism is a lot more personal when you have people living across the way from the descendants of those who enslaved their ancestors.
Like all matters of the heart, the potential for violence is always lingering in the backdrop. So, will you, the white-minded liberal machine, be there to help us fight back?
These were the questions that many other rural Black folk and I wrestled with as the first wave of contemporary Black consciousness seemed to be prospering elsewhere. Even in the rural South, however, time has a way of transforming public opinion.
At this very moment, I couldn’t tell you what it is—wouldn’t be able to put my finger on it if you asked me. But, following the state-sanctioned murder of George Floyd, another wave of Black consciousness has swept across the world. This “second wave” has a unique cadence. This time, the liberation energy could be felt even by Black folk in the deepest crevices of the trenches.
Black Lives Never Mattered Here
Take my hometown, Marianna, Florida. As I write this, my organization, the Street Philosophy Institute (SPI), is leading a movement to remove an infamous oak tree that was the site of arguably the most egregious spectacle lynching of the 20th century. On the evening of October 26, 1934, 23-year old Claude Neal was brutally tortured, dismembered, and hung by a white mob for being falsely accused of murdering a white woman. From the point of view of the Black community here, this oak tree symbolizes nothing more than a naturalized execution site. Yet today, it stands in front of Jackson County courthouse as tall and wide as it did the evening Claude Neal was lynched—an unassuming reminder that Black lives have never mattered here.
When we first began circulating our petition, calling for not only the removal of the tree, but a memorial and the replanting of five trees in Claude Neal’s memory, a concerned family member reached out to me. In a worried tone, he shouted:
“Cuz, make sure you stay strapped! The shit y’all doing bout ta piss off a lot of white folk round here!”
Now, my cousin cautioning me to carry a gun (due to my racial justice work in a town like Marianna, which was founded on Black oppression) doesn’t scare me. That fear is to be expected. What frightens me the most is that the mainstream progressives screaming “Black Lives Matter” don’t realize how enormous the risks are for many of us Black folk fighting for our lives and dignity in the rural South.
Making the Movement Whole
The second wave of BLM has the potential to make the entire movement whole, but only if these hidden scripts are acknowledged. And we need your support. We need your time. We need your resources. But above all, we need your attention.
It’s like my grandma explained to me when I first began taking social justice work seriously:
“Baby, there’s three levels to activism: the grassroots, the streets, and beneath the streets.”
We’ve seen what Black Lives Matter looks like at the grassroots-level, with corporate institutions pledging their “support,” politicians taking a knee wearing kente stoles, and scores of guilt-driven social media posts. Some may even argue that having ordinary people in the streets is what sparked the initial call to action in both the first and second waves of the movement. From the standpoint of the trenches, however, Black Lives Matter will always be a surface-level-rally-cry until it listens to, engages with, and protects arguably the most vulnerable Black lives.
What does this require exactly? Above all, it requires mainstream activists, liberals, and progressives to roll up their sleeves and support Black communities where racial justice has yet to see the light of day. We must not let our movement operate with blind spots—otherwise we risk having it only reaffirm the white-minded social justice culture that silences so many layers of the streets already.
|Context & Support
|1. Read more about Darien Pollock & Street Philosophy
2. Learn more about the Claude Neal Lynching in Marianna, Florida
2a. The Anatomy of a Lynching by James R. McGovern (1982)
2b. On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How to Resist It by David Livingstone Smith (2020)
3. Support the Street Philosophy Institute (SPI)
3a. Sign SPI’s change.org petition
3b. Donate to SPI’s projects