King's message of civil disobedience resonates among protesters

Dr. H. Lovell Smith, a sociology professor at Loyola University, pictured at the Reginald Lewis Museum in Baltimore.
Dr. H. Lovell Smith, a sociology professor at Loyola University, pictured at the Reginald Lewis Museum in Baltimore. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun)

When he first heard that a white police officer had fatally shot a young black man near St. Louis last summer, the Rev. Jamal Bryant got a sick feeling in his stomach.

Then a friend sent video.


"Seeing Michael Brown's body on the ground, covered in that yellow blanket, made it almost traumatic," says Bryant, pastor of the Empowerment Temple AME Church in Baltimore and a well-known social activist. Within 48 hours, he was in Ferguson, Mo., among the protesters lining the streets.

Bryant, 43, was born well after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who would have turned 86 last week. But what he saw in Missouri struck him as a modern incarnation of King's legacy.


"Ferguson is the Selma of my generation," he says, referring to the Alabama town where King led a pivotal 1965 march.

As America observes Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2015, a new wave of leaders has emerged. They've organized dozens of demonstrations since Ferguson, events where protesters have asserted that bigotry continues in many powerful forms despite King's accomplishments.

To some, the wave of protest is a new enterprise, one defined by new technology. To others, it's an expression of yearnings far older than King.

Most agree that almost 47 years after his murder, his legacy is animating new winds of change.


"In his day, the issues were voting rights and segregation," says the Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, 33, president of the Baltimore chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "In ours, it's police brutality and profiling. Dr. King once gave a speech, 'A Knock at Midnight,' about the urgency of now. We must also come together, and soon."

A sickness in the body

In 1955, when two white men killed black teen-ager Emmett Till in Mississippi for flirting with a white woman, the incident appeared in the New York press four days later.

When Darren Wilson of the Ferguson police shot and killed Michael Brown last Aug. 9, word raced around the world in minutes via Twitter, Facebook and cable TV.

It hit a handful of Marylanders in different ways.

Bryant, a veteran of high-profile protests, had flown to Florida in 2012 to "stand with" the family of slain teen-ager Trayvon Martin, and this felt similar. "I realized this was something historic. I was on a plane to St. Louis," he says.

DeRay McKesson, 29, a Baltimore native living in Minneapolis, kept "seeing the news on Twitter and Instagram [that night] and thinking 'what is going on? This is really crazy.'" He got in his car next morning, made the nine-hour drive to St. Louis, and took to Facebook to find a place to stay.

Though Witherspoon immediately saw Brown's death as a Till-style "assassination," others weren't sure. At Morgan State, Chinedu Nwokeafor, a 22-year-old junior, absorbed the news more slowly, "the way a sickness hits the body." He decided to gather more facts. "I didn't want to act out of emotion," he says.

A grand jury decided not to pursue charges against Wilson, who resigned from his post with the Ferguson Police Department within days of that ruling, saying, "I have been told that my continued employment may put the residents and police officers of the City of Ferguson at risk." The grand jury decision prompted protests around the country as many questioned the fairness of a justice system that allowed such a ruling while others agreed with the ruling saying the shooting was justified because Wilson feared for his life during the encounter with Brown.

It's unknown what chain of events led to Brown's death. Some have testified he had his hands up when shot, others that he was trying to take Wilson's gun. Either way, many see the case as reflecting a form of bigotry more insidious than, say, denial of the right to vote: a tendency by police to more readily use violence against minorities than whites.

"During King's era, there were clear barriers to inclusion in the American enterprise, and he had a clear strategy for pushing against them," says H. Lovell Smith, a sociology professor at Loyola University Maryland. "We're living in a time now where we generally assume that many of those walls have come down. It's only when we run up against situations like the Michael Brown incident that we're suddenly reminded how racism, and many of the challenges that confronted us in the civil rights era, continue to persist."

Witherspoon agrees. He has led rallies against police brutality for years, in Baltimore and elsewhere, in the firm belief that law enforcement is trigger-happy around "black, brown and tan" citizens, in the words of a recent rally flier.

"These issues are about the very deliberate targeting of a specific segment of our community, and that's what Dr. King's mission was all about — ending deliberate, targeted segregation, not just in the South but also across the U.S.A.," he says.

If the message today is similar, its delivery has changed.

'We've had enough'

Hard as his mission was, King worked with some advantages current leaders don't have. He could draw on the power of a unified black church. He was a man of faith and charisma. He was an expert on the work of Henry David Thoreau, the American author who coined the term "civil disobedience" in 1849.

King and other leaders of the mid-20th Century had to wait until weekly church services to disseminate many of their marching orders, but even that had its advantages, says Larry S. Gibson, a law professor at the University of Maryland and civil rights historian.

"Behind the scenes, he had to smooth out the differences between many competing civil rights organizations, and the lag time gave him the chance to do that," says Gibson, 72.

In the social media age, of course, key players can distribute information worldwide in seconds.

To Bryant, it means fewer parties with potential agendas control the flow of information—which means more movement "leaders," more unfiltered news and quicker action. By the time he arrived in St. Louis last year, he was stunned to see young protesters lining the main street in Ferguson for miles in each direction.

"I couldn't have imagined a response like that until I saw it," he says.

He was in Missouri off and on for weeks, largely acting, he says, as a calming influence when tempers threatened to flare. "The real leadership came from the young people of that community," he says.

One such leader was McKesson, who once ran a youth education program in West Baltimore.

What he saw in Ferguson was a story the press wasn't telling — about throngs of people demonstrating peacefully, cops who lied when convenient and a "white supremacy that runs so deep there's no silver bullet."

Visiting the town frequently, he posted live updates on his Twitter account, sharing such material as contradictions in police reports, video of overly aggressive cops and updates on strategy. His base of followers swelled from 800 to more than 60,000, as violent protests — wrought with arson, vandalism, gunfire and arrests — broke out in the days following the grand jury decision.

McKesson organized peaceful marches, mall protests and die-ins — in which demonstrators lie on the ground as though dead. He spoke on Sky News and in Atlantic magazine. Though he concedes there were fires and looting on a handful of nights, because no one was hurt he argues Ferguson fell within King's nonviolent tradition.


There were also, by his estimate, about 20 key leaders. "There wasn't a Martin; there wasn't a Malcolm," he says. "This was regular people saying 'We've had enough.' It makes the movement more sustainable."


Baltimore, too, has seen its share of protests. Witherspoon has organized several, leading die-ins and demonstrations across town.

He has often used old-fashioned methods—knocking on doors, manning phone banks and leading protesters in "We Shall Overcome"—in a nod to his civil rights heroes.

Police and protesters have remained peaceful.

"Violence in such demonstrations has historically come from the police," Witherspoon says. "Our rallies have certainly been in the tradition of Dr. King."

So have those at Morgan State. Nwokeafor had spent months limiting his activism to teaching forums, but he says the decision by the Missouri grand jury not to indict Wilson hit him and other students like "a slap in the face."

Within an hour he'd helped plan a rally for the next morning. At 10 a.m. Nov. 26, dozens of students set out to march to a nearby police station, but their emotions were so strong, Nwokeafor says, they kept going, blocking several intersections.

The action "signified how Michael Brown's death stopped us all where we are." The protest ended up CNN.

King's work, of course, helped lay the groundwork for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and more, building blocks in the foundation of a more equal nation. In 2015, success could be harder to define.

McKesson says the social media megaphone has democratized leadership, leaving organizers less vulnerable than King or Malcolm X were. Bryant's Empowerment Temple has joined with other black churches to provide college scholarships in Brown's old hometown.

Gibson calls for police body cameras. Smith wants police to learn that blacks are no more likely to be criminals than anyone else. He might speak to the point while hosting a Martin Luther King Day round table at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History. It's called Life After Ferguson.

Witherspoon looks to Selma, a place he often visits, for perspective. Yes, he says, police billy-clubbed dozens of peaceful marchers there on March 7, 1965, a day now infamous as "Bloody Sunday." But it caused an outcry that led to change.

"That protest shed light on what was going on in the South," he says. "America was given no choice but to address it. That's what's happening now."