“This is our Freedom Summer”:  My Reflections on #FergusonOctober

“This is our Freedom Summer”:  My Reflections on #FergusonOctober

My decision to participate in Ferguson October was spur of the moment. I did not plan to attend, but my partner and her roommate convinced me to go. My interconnected multiple selves — black man, job-seeking graduate student, and activist committed to social justice — waged a battle for my conscience and time. My multiple deadlines and obligations as a graduate student made such a trip inconvenient. Yet, I recalled my reaction to the George Zimmerman verdict. I remembered crying to express my helplessness and grief. I told myself that night, I would not be caught on the sidelines in the fight for racial justice again. I promised that I would do anything in my power to be present the next time, because, unfortunately, I knew there would be a next time.

The initial goal of Ferguson October was, and still is, attaining justice for Michael Brown. Protestors demanded the arrest of officer Darren Wilson. Building a national movement represented the long term goal for the weekend of resistance. One of the leaders of Millennial Activists United, Ashley Yates, stated that the objective for the action was to forge a national movement against the unjust killings of black women and men. The weekend of resistance was supposed to serve as a catalyst for action elsewhere.

Sign at Michael Brown memorial. (Austin C. McCoy. Licensed CC BY-SA.)
Sign at Michael Brown memorial. (Austin C. McCoy. Licensed CC BY-SA.)

We arrived in St. Louis in time to attend the Saturday morning march and rally. The march exhibited broad coalitional support for Michael Brown and the other black men and women who lost their lives at the hands of police and vigilantes. The composition of the march cut across politics, class, gender and sexuality, race, and generation. I counted several local civil rights groups, new and old, organized labor unions, socialists and revolutionary communists, anarchists, and pro-Palestinian activists in the crowd. The march’s diversity reflected the interconnectedness of political issues that progressives and radicals have concerned themselves with recently — racist policing and state violence, racial and economic inequality, labor rights, and immigration.

Police officer videotaping marchers. (Austin C. McCoy. Licensed CC BY-SA.)
Police officer videotaping marchers. (Austin C. McCoy. Licensed CC BY-SA.)

The march felt different from the protests in Ferguson. The march was a calm and sanctioned event — law enforcement positioned themselves on both sides of the street. No police officers wore riot gear. None displayed their guns openly. No helicopters flew above. One menacing officer, however, stood at the right side of the street videotaping the protest. He stood there with a stone-faced demeanor, appearing as if he sought to intimidate marchers who noticed. Marchers did not take the bait. Instead, they took pictures of him.

The organizers’ sense of history struck me at the rally. As the leader of the St. Louis-based Organization for Black Struggle spoke, I wrote in my notebook: “Dred Scott. History in Ferguson.” The rally took place at Keiner Plaza. The enslaved Dred Scott sued for his freedom at the Old Courthouse that sat to the east of the Plaza in 1846. In 1857, the Taney court argued that blacks in America could not attain rights that accompanied free status due to the claim that their blackness rendered them unfit for citizenship.

Ella Baker had a long history of organizing, but emerged as a leader during the 1960s advising SNCC. (Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Licensed CC BY.)
Ella Baker had a long history of organizing, but emerged as a leader during the 1960s advising SNCC. (Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Licensed CC BY.)

While listening to the speakers, I scribbled: “They continue to use history. They mention Stokely Carmichel and Ella Baker. This is our Freedom Summer and we’re going to win.” Local activists Alexis Templeton and Cheyenne Green referenced CarmichaelBaker, and Freedom Summer in their remarks. Carmichael served as one of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s leading organizers in Lowndes County, Alabama. Ella Baker had a long history of organizing, but emerged as a leader during the 1960s advising SNCC. SNCC put out a national call for whites and other allies to travel south to participate in Freedom Summer in 1964. Freedom Summer, like Ferguson October fifty years later, sought to dramatize southern white supremacy, register voters, and serve as a catalyst for anti-racist action.[1]

The Ferguson organizers’ references drew from the community organizing tradition in the civil rights and black power movements. Conjuring this tradition signaled not only their aspirations for the event, but their awareness of how the legacy of the civil rights movement influenced their politics. Activists’ allusions to the community organizing tradition reflected an understanding that movements are built through daily human interactions, raising political consciousness of community members, and leveraging their relationships to challenge the city’s power structure.

References to the organizing tradition also implied a gender critique of particular forms of leadership during the civil rights and black power movements. Historian Barbara Ransby contrasts Ella Baker’s model of political organizing with the “messianic” model that relies upon singular male leadership and mass mobilizations.[2] Historically, black male leaders have capitalized on black women’s work behind the scenes of social movements. The conspicuous presence of young black women like Ashley Yates, Alexis Templeton, and Cheyanne Green of Lost Voices, as speakers and leaders of the weekend’s events underscored the necessity to overturn the gendered dynamics embedded in African American racial politics and leadership. The vital participation of black women like Yates and Green in the movement emphasize that an exclusively black male led and dominated movement for racial justice is not truly a just movement for everyone.

Protests contain tensions and contradictions. This was evident in the Saturday night march to the Ferguson police station. That night we marched from the site where Michael Brown was shot on Canfield Drive to the police station on South Florissant Road. This protest was more intense because it was not sanctioned. We knew law enforcement was tracking us because a helicopter hovered overhead. We momentarily shut down all of the main roads on our two mile trek. March leaders delivered instructions over the megaphone — we would march there, the leaders would say a few words, and we would march back. Leaders feared the risk of police violence, especially with Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, accompanying us.

The leaders changed plans once we arrived at the police station. They spoke, we chanted, then we sat in silence for a couple of minutes. As the crowd parted, the people at the front of the demonstration filed out, and then they started chanting “turn down for what” in the middle of the street. I noticed some activists who walked away irritated by the actions of the yelling activists. One activist commented to a news source about how those chanting did not take the protest seriously.

As an outsider, I had a different take on the situation — the protest was successful. No violence had occurred. The chanting did not undermine shutting down two main streets and the sit-in at the police station. I explained on Facebook how the end of the protest made sense. Civil rights marches and mass meetings contained exuberance, so why should this march be different? It is true that protesting police killings and the criminalization of black men and women is a serious, if not deadly, proposition. Yet, one of the goals of white supremacy is to delegitimize political and cultural practices of people of color, especially as those actions relate to hip hop culture. To be jubilant in the face of a violent state is significant. That night, several protesters fearlessly turned that street into their church, or their club.

Sign at Michael Brown memorial. (Austin C. McCoy. Licensed CC BY-SA.)
Sign at Michael Brown memorial. (Austin C. McCoy. Licensed CC BY-SA.)

Events during Sunday’s mass meeting at St. Louis University also revealed tensions. The mass meeting, according to a flyer, was organized “in the tradition of the civil rights movement.”[3] Many mass meetings during the civil rights movement were essentially religious services. They were important for making decisions collectively and boosting morale.[4] Whoever organized the meeting seemed to follow that structure. Most of the speakers, with few exceptions, were religious leaders. Organizers scheduled philosopher and activist Cornel West to deliver the keynote.

A division emerged between the scheduled speakers and organizers on the ground. Young protesters turned their backs to Cornell Williams Brooks, the NAACP president. Despite Reverend Toni Blackmon’s strong criticisms of the civil rights generation, organizers demanded space on the program. I wrote, “Young activists have asserted themselves. They’re chanting. This is what democracy looks like.” Rev. Blackmon and several of the organizers negotiated a compromise. She bumped the remaining scheduled speakers to allow the organizers to address the crowd. The organizers who spoke represented a strain of black protest that critiqued respectability politics. They did not resort to civility to voice their criticisms of the organization of the meeting. One organizer took to the podium to remind us of Dr. King’s criticism of white liberal inaction in the civil rights movement in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

A St. Louis Cardinal cap with a Martin Luther King quote drawn on it. (Austin C. McCoy. Licensed CC BY-SA.)
A St. Louis Cardinal cap with a Martin Luther King quote drawn on it. (Austin C. McCoy. Licensed CC BY-SA.)

It would be easy to view my report as an effort to discredit the organizers. However, the results of the tensions thwart such interpretations. Tensions, interpretive discrepancies, and open conflict can produce positive results in social movements. The organizers’ protest at the mass meeting forced the older leaders to confront a potential movement not led by the church, NAACP, or veterans of the civil rights or black power movement, but one led by black millennial activists. Towards the end of the meeting, Reverend Osagyefo Sekou declared that “new leaders have emerged” and suggest a “transference of leadership.”[5] The question remaining, however, is whether or not these black millennials can actually break out of the civil rights and black power mold of politics.

I have engaged in many conversations since we returned from St. Louis on October 13. One of the main questions I receive is, “What’s next?” That question is easy to answer if it is in relation to the activists in Ferguson: the activists will continue to organize whether or not Darren Wilson is indicted. The struggle in Ferguson is much larger than the law enforcement agencies there. It is also larger than police brutality. The movement has not only thrown police militarization into question, but it also has emerged as the crucible for a black millennial politics that questions post-civil rights era segregation and inequality, respectability politics, and sexism ingrained in policies such as President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative. Frantz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth, “Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity.”[6] Black activists in North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Ferguson, Chicago, and Los Angeles have created the opening. The question is whether or not we will exploit it.

Works Cited

[1] Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (New York: New York University Press, 2010); Doug McAdam, Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 166.

[2] Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill:  The University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 192-195.

For discussions of the “organizing tradition,” in civil rights and black power see John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994); Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes.

[3] Ferguson October Flyer.

[4] Aldon Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (New York: The Free Press, 1984), 66. Watch the HBO movie, Boycott, for a great dramatization of mass meetings.

[5] Author’s notes, Mass Meeting, St. Louis University, St. Louis, MO, October 12, 2014.

[6] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1965), 145.

Suggested Readings

DuBois, Joshua, “Can Ferguson Swing the Election?,” The Daily Beast, October 26, 2014.

Payne, Charles. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1995).

Rivero, Daniel, “Made in St. Louis: Meet the New Face of Social Activism in America,”, October 21, 2014.

Sakuma, Amanda, “Women Hold the Front-Lines of Ferguson,”, October 12, 2014.

Featured image: Speakers at #FergusonOctober, by Austin C. McCoy. Licensed CC BY-SA.

Austin C. McCoy is a Phd Candidate in History at the University of Michigan. He is writing a dissertation on progressives' responses to plant closings and urban fiscal crises in the Midwest during the 1970s and 1980s.