Several civil rights activists took to the stage at the Essence Festival, held this weekend in New Orleans, La., and urged the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement to turn its energy into political action.
According to Time magazine, many of the 150 speakers at Essence Festival used the opportunity to call for the Black community to get politically active. Some of the speakers were family members of Black men killed in high-profile shootings. They included Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, who was shot by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, and Nicole Paultre, the fiancée of Sean Bell, who was mistakenly killed by New York police on the night before his wedding. Civil activists said marching and online activism alone won’t lead to change.
“In order to make that change happen we have to get out the vote,” said Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, who was one of the speakers at Essence Festival.
#Blacklivesmatter is one of the more prominent civil rights groups to rise in the wake of several controversial police slayings of unarmed Black men. The group was heavily involved in protesting the killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Mo. police officer and Eric Garner, who died after a struggle with New York police. According to the BLM website, the group was formed after the death of Trayvon Martin to raise awareness about problems facing the Black community. Those issues include state-sponsored violence, mass incarceration, violence against queer and transgender people and the plight of undocumented Black immigrants.
The group has a list of political demands stated on its website and is also raising money by selling BLM-themed merchandise. Some of the proceeds go to families who have lost a loved one to police brutality.
“When we started #BlackLivesMatter, we were very clear that it needed to be fuller than what was being talked about as a crisis only affecting Black boys and men,” said Alicia Garza, one of the founders of BLM, in a Los Angeles Times article. “We talked about state-sanctioned violence in a much broader framework to talk about the violence of unemployment, the violence of poverty, the violence of patriarchy and sexism, the violence of transphobia and homophobia and we put a stake in the ground and said, ‘It’s all Black lives and we can’t leave anyone behind if we’re really trying to get free.’”
According to Time, some activists are worried that political interest among young Black people will subside since President Barack Obama will not be a candidate in the 2016 election.
“People don’t think Black folks are going to turn out because President Obama is no longer on the ticket, but we were voting long before that,” Campbell said. “My job is to make sure our voices are challenging anyone running for office.”
National Urban League President Marc Morial said the BLM movement has raised awareness about issues affecting the Black community, but the next step has to be channeling that energy into political action, which can actually lead to social change.
“The advent of organic social media organizing is a new technique that’s creating an opportunity for a new generation to get its voice heard, but that doesn’t replace traditional work,” Morial said. “Movements don’t exist without changes, without an end goal of changes in public policy.”
Morial also said the National Urban League had invited several presidential candidates, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley and Republicans Jeb Bush and Ben Carson, to an upcoming conference in Tampa, Fla.
“What we’re trying to do is advance the conversation early around these issues—economic opportunity, criminal justice reform, schools and education—where do you stand? What are your points of view?” Morial said.
Garza said the BLM movement signals a reawakening of Black political activism and also called on both parties to get involved with the movement.
“Black Lives Matter has come to signify a new era of Black power, Black resistance and Black resilience,” said Garza in the LA Times. “For Black folks, this is our renaissance. For the right wing and Republicans, this is a brand they want to be a part of. It’s important to distinguish the two.”