The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would side with today’s young protesters, says African-American studies Professor James Taylor.
The civil rights hero's holiday this year took on a special significance, coming on the heels of anti-police violence protests and the release of the movie "Selma," which marks the 50th anniversary of the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
Throughout the Bay Area, protesters invoked King’s legacy this past weekend in a series of actions that kicked off Friday to draw attention to racial inequality and police violence directed against unarmed black men. And at a 5 a.m. protest outside Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf’s home on Monday, a group of activists played audio recordings of King’s speeches.
A key similarity between the historical black civil rights movement and the current wave of demonstrations is that it’s a youth-led movement, said Taylor, a politics professor at the University of San Francisco who also teaches African-American studies at UC Berkeley. Taylor is the author of the book "Black Nationalism in the United States: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama."
“I think people tend to look at the civil rights movement as an old movement, because it happened 40 to 50 years ago,” Taylor noted in an interview with KQED’s Rachel Dornhelm. “But it was, 40 to 50 years ago, a movement of young people.”
King was 39 years old when he died, Taylor pointed out, and became a public figure at the age of 26. “So the thing that they do share, at least generically, is the issue of mobilized youth trying to change the issues and the things impacting them as they confront them on a daily basis.”
What’s different about the recent actions, Taylor said, is that Bay Area social movements have their own unique history.
“So we could look at how the Occupy, Oscar Grant movement, how the Black Lives Matter movement, all relate now to the history of social movements here in the Bay Area,” Taylor said.
Last Friday in Oakland, he noted, “You had one movement at the Federal Building ... that was all Asian, Filipino and others. And then you had a movement at West Oakland BART that was all black and mostly female. And then you had the Alameda County Courthouse, which was overwhelmingly young white people fighting issues of gentrification and evictions of African-Americans in Oakland’s housing market.”
Asked if today’s protesters are reflecting King’s views, Taylor responded: “Absolutely.”
The movie "Selma" demonstrates how King strove to make a difference on issues of inequality, he said:
“At the very moment these movements seem to have cooled, all of a sudden here we are today talking about these seemingly spontaneous actions of young people on the weekend of MLK’s birthday. So I think there’s some inspiration young people are getting from the legacy and memory of Dr. King at this moment. And if anybody’s sort of confused about it, you can be clear — with King, we have 13 years of a record where you can determine that MLK would clearly be on the side of the young people today that are out there in the streets.
“I think these people have learned to comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable. And that’s why they’re taking over freeways, taking over malls, taking over stores. ... I think Black Lives Matter has become a slogan, like Black Power was 50 years ago. It can’t be left as a slogan. It has to become more than a slogan. It has to become part of a psychology of America."