Black Lives Matter: Social Creation Not Transformation

One of the integral threads of American history and society is social reformation. The young country has endured everything from abolitionism to the suffrage of women; each movement shifted the American way of life. Currently, the primary social call for change is Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter is an effort to bring equality about death for all people, but especially for Black Americans. Although some people view this reformation as an offspring of the earlier Civil Rights Movement, Black Lives Matter is a separate social movement, inspired from the tactics and success of the Civil Rights Movement, but it is not an evolution of the mid-twentieth century social reformation.

Movement exploited tumultuous social occurrences, such as police altercations, and unfortunate deaths of activists.

Differences in Mission, Tactics, and Founding

Despite the shared themes of the two social movements, leaders of Black Lives Matter draw clear differences that separate them from Civil Rights movement. At the very inception of each movement the two differed; the Civil Rights Movement was founded as response to the culmination of generations of oppression. Oppositely, Black Lives Matter was founded mainly in response to the untimely death of Trayvon Martin in 2013. The two different motives for formation breed different attitudes. Civil Rights felt less emotional connection to the movement, but had more vigor to create institutional change. Black Lives Matter associates themselves more closely to the events that caused their formation. Having a close feeling of connection to events leaves activists to be more emotionally charged.

Opal Tometi cites the biggest difference between his social movement and the Civil Rights as a fundamental difference of mission. The Civil Rights movement was purely a civil call to change. Leaders like Martin Luther King called for legislative change. In contrast Black Lives Matter is a “humanitarian movement” as Tometi puts it. Activists in Black Lives Matter seek not only change within the current system, but also, a change in system entirely. This difference between the two, create a fundamental schism; Black Lives Matters acts for much harder and exhaustive social change.

In order to achieve their missions the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter adopted similar, but separate tactics. Civil Rights members are known for peaceful protests, in which activists act outside of social constructs to portray equality. For instance, college students, both black and white, would sit at segregated lunch counters regardless of the social pressure from other patrons. These sit-ins in their own nature did not cause a disruption in the society; instead society disrupted the activists. Black Lives Matter practiced a different approach. According social historian and writer Khury Peterson-Smith, “the movement [Black Lives Matter] has been militant from its inception” . Smith is referring the process by which Black Lives Matter cause social disruption. A common tool for Black Lives Matter is standing in unity across crowded highways. By stopping traffic activists force citizens to notice their cause and face it head on.

Black Lives Matter also uses social media to gain traction and spread awareness. With the use of the Internet, primarily twitter, Black Lives Matter connects and organizes thousands of people in a matter of seconds. The Civil Rights Movement, hindered by the technology of their time, was forced to connect to people through papers, pamphlets and word of mouth. In this regard Black Lives Matter is much more effective.

Inspiration Not Imitation

Black Lives Matter had the fortunate advantage of coming fifty years later; the later movement was able to learn from the failures and successes of the Civil Rights Movement. Social activist and hip-hop artist Tef Poe says “One of the negligent areas of the civil rights movement is that we did not move the moral compass of racism in the right direction.” As a leader of Black Lives Matter Poe is able to steer the movement in the direction that the Civil Rights failed to meet. In this aspect Black Lives Matter used as a learning curve.

Although Black Live Matter is learning from Civil Rights, the leaders are insistent they are not twins with the Civil Rights. Tometi says that they respect and admire the works of civil rights activists, but Black Lives Matter is not copying those that came before them. In order to have legitimacy in the face of critics’ leaders, such as Tometi, believe the movement needs to be separated as a sovereign social movement that is not restricted by the actions of the Civil Rights movement.


Equality for marginalized citizens, especially Black Americans, is a common thread that links Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter. Both social movements attempted to attack the racism in American society. Black Lives Matter and Civil Rights expressed their strength in numbers through the youth. Reverend Morris, a social race activist from Chicago, points out, “young people have always been on the front lines in the name of racial freedom and equality from the 1960’s to present day.” Using the energy and voice of the youth both social movements had their messages conveyed.

In addition to the use of youth, Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter turned very negative events and created a positive for their social reformation movement. Washington Post writer Sebastian Simone compares how both movements, “needed violent confrontations to attract national media attention.” In order to go nationwide with their messages Black Lives Matter and Civil Rights Movement exploited tumultuous social occurrences, such as police altercations, and unfortunate deaths of activists.

Case Study: Hattie Carroll vs. Mike Brown

Both Black Lives Matter and Civil Rights experienced and acted upon death. In the days following the death of everyday citizens, the social movements exploited the situation to convey their message and spread awareness across large audiences. Although the situations are different, they are structurally the same, yet handled in different manners.

The Civil Rights movement during the early sixties experienced the death of Hattie Carroll. Carroll was a black waitress in the Baltimore Maryland when she was violently struck by a white patron; later that night Hattie Carroll passed away from her injuries. In response, Civil Rights activists took up solidarity in peace with each other. Thousands attended the young waitress’ wake, and thousands more marched across the country in support of her life. In addition, famous artist Bob Dylan took to his work to spread awareness (Click the link to listen à Bob Dylan – Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll). Largely the Civil Rights Movement remained peaceful in the wake of Carroll’s untimely death.

Hattie Carroll

(Photo Courtesy of Ian Frazer)

In a similar occurrence forty years later, the Black Lives Matters movement dealt with the death of Michael Brown a black teenager. Michael Brown was shot and killed following an altercation with a police officer. Both the media and Black Lives Matters heavily covered the controversial death and grand jury trial that ensued. In rebuttal to the death of Brown activists across the country staged marches and protests to show support. In his hometown of Ferguson protests quickly turned into riots. Violence quickly became the common theme of protests; the protests became so severe the National Guard was called in to restore peace. Even though, the Black Lives Matter movement wanted peace to be upheld, many activists fell into the violent aftermath.

Fundamentally the situations mirror each other, the deaths of black individuals at the hands of white men. In reaction the situations were handled very differently. The civil rights movement remained relatively peaceful, while Black Lives Matter’s protests, although unintentional, opened the door to violence.

Black Lives Matter the Modern Breathe of Civil Rights?

The Civil Rights experienced great victories in the sixties, including but not limited to the passing of The Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law made it illegal to discriminate based on race, gender, or religion. Some historians argue that the Civil Rights movement died in the years following the passing of this act. The New World Encyclopedia agrees, citing the ending of the Civil Rights movement in 1968. In contrast many people believe that the movement has not died at all, but rather transformed. In her article Alice Walker states frankly that, “because we live the movement can never die” (Charters, 86). Walker goes on to refer to an evolution in the movement, not a dying of it. While the Civil Rights Movement may still live on, it is not through the social power of the Black Lives Matter.

Black Lives Matters was born in the hearts of today’s youth, and acts on the wills of those today, not on those that came earlier. Men and women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-nine are the largest faction of the movement; these individuals comprise the body of Black Lives Matter. Khury Smith in her article “Black Lives Matter: a new movement takes shape” says, “high schools, middle schools, and even elementary schools are holding protests. Showing the shear breadth and strength of the movement.” The movement was born and lives in the hearts of today’s youth, not in the hearts of the civil rights era youth.

Final Thoughts

Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter share the common interests of black social liberation in America. Both movements connect to each other, but are not the same movements. While the Civil Rights Movement may still love on today, it does not live on through Black Lives Matter. The new social movement is the social movement of current teenagers and young adults, inspired by the success, failures, and tactics of the Civil Rights. Black Lives Matter seeks different goals and is not shackled by the ideals and practices of the Civil Rights Movement.

Works Cited

African-American Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968).” – New World Encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 May 2016.

Charters, Ann. The Portable Sixties Reader. New York: Penguin, 2003. Print.

Francisco, Tonya. “Comparing and Contrasting Black Lives Matter and the Civil Rights Movement.” WGNTV. N.p., 10 Feb. 2016. Web. 11 May 2016.

Harris, Fredrick. “The Next Civil Rights Movement? | Dissent Magazine.” Dissent Magazine. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 May 2016.

Peterson-Smith, Khury. “Black Lives Matter.” Black Lives Matter. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 May 2016.

Sanchez, Raf. “Ferguson: Timeline of Events since Michael Brown’s Death.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, n.d. Web. 11 May 2016.

Tometi, Opal. “Black Lives Matter Is Not a Civil Rights Movement.” Time. Time, n.d. Web. 11 May 2016.

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