Veterans of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the groups at the forefront of the fight for voting rights for African Americans, rose to the defense Friday of the activists of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has come under harsh criticism from Republicans and conservatives after the recent murders of several police officers.
“Today, as in the past, the protesters who have taken to the streets against police violence will not be intimidated by slander or mischaracterization as 'racist' or 'terrorist sympathizers' born of the fear, ignorance and malice of their would-be critics,” read the statement signed by 66 members of the organization, better known by its acronym SNCC. The statement of a show of support was a significant coming together of two generations of activists who have not always agreed on how to continue the movement for racial justice.
The statement came a day after Democrats wrapped up their national convention in Philadelphia, in which several forums acknowledged the ongoing protests and calls for criminal justice reform after a series of high-profile killings of African Americans, most of them unarmed, by law enforcement officers.
The mothers of several of those killed by law enforcement officers or shot to death by civilians were featured onstage on the second night of the convention. Several panel discussions during the week focused on criminal justice reforms. And activists associated with the movement demonstrated outside the venues where delegates and party leaders stressed the importance of getting out the vote in November.
Eric Holder, the former attorney general and the first African American to serve as the nation’s top law enforcement officer, spoke to the issue during his remarks from the convention stage.
“At a time when the bonds between law enforcement and communities of color have frayed, when assassins target police in heinous attacks, and peaceful citizens have to question whether black lives truly matter — and they do,” Holder said, “we need a president who understands the reality that I saw in my travels across our country as our nation’s 82nd attorney general. That there should be no tension between protecting those who valiantly risk their lives to serve and ensuring that everyone is treated fairly.”
During the primaries, activists frequently challenged the Democratic candidates to acknowledge the disproportionate use of lethal force by police in encounters with African Americans. They insisted that the candidates use the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” which at times led to tense exchanges. Eventually, Clinton and former candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley did come to embrace the term.
Clinton did not use the term in her acceptance speech Thursday night, but she did vow to "reform our criminal justice system from end to end and rebuild trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve."
But Republicans often responded with the retort that “all lives matter” and argued that activists were ignoring that far more African Americans kill each other.
Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, and other Republican leaders have criticized the activists and the term “Black Lives Matter” as divisive and anti-police.
“A lot of people feel that it is inherently racist,” Trump has said. “It’s a very divisive term, because all lives matter.”
Criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement exploded after five police officers in Dallas were gunned down during a demonstration against police shootings of two black men in Baton Rouge and suburban Minneapolis. The following week, three police officers were ambushed and shot dead in Baton Rouge. In both cases, black men who expressed anger about the police shootings were believed to be responsible. Both were killed at the scene.
The police murders happened days before Republicans met in Cleveland. In interviews before the gathering and in some convention speeches, politicians and party activists blamed Black Lives Matter protesters for inciting violence against police officers.
In Friday’s statement, SNCC, as have other veteran civil-rights groups and individuals, pushed back at that argument.
“This claim is a deliberate, cynical deception,” the statement reads, noting that the “the interracial shoulder-to-shoulder bond of #BlackLivesMatter demonstrators belies the hypocrisy of such would-be detractors.”
“The reason for today’s powerful and persistent insistence that Black lives matter is based on the irrefutable evidence throughout American history that Black lives have never mattered. The Black lives that were enslaved for 250 years never much mattered beyond the kind of economic concern held for livestock. The Black lives that suffered a hundred years of brutal segregation and discrimination following slavery’s abolition never mattered until Black people themselves raised their voices loudly in demand and battered down the walls denying their humanity.”
SNCC members were considered the radical, young turks of the civil-rights movement, pushing older activists to be more confrontational with government leaders. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a former SNCC chairman, was brutally beaten along with others on what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday” when the group tried to hold a march for voting rights in Selma, Ala., in 1965. Images of the violence were televised and credited with spurring political action on federal civil-rights legislation.
“We, the still-active radicals who were SNCC, salute today’s Movement for Black Lives for taking hold of the torch to continue to light this flame of truth for a knowingly forgetful world!” the statement read.
While saluting the passion of today’s activists in forcing the nation to confront the issue of police relations in black communities, some SNCC members and today's activists remain at odds over one important issue: Several prominent leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement have said they would not vote for either presidential candidate and some have questioned the importance of participating in the electoral process at all.
Charlie Cobb, a SNCC member who along with others has worked with some of the activists in the Black Lives movement through the SNCC Legacy Project, is one of those troubled by the posture of some of the activists toward the power of the ballot.
“No U.S. president will ever fully embrace their concerns,” Cobb said. “If you want a president to even be interested in your concerns, however, you have to organize to generate the pressure. That begins with the vote, in my view, although obviously it does not end with voting.”
Here is the full SNCC statement: