Tavis Smiley: Sparking a new civil rights movement
University of Missouri activist and graduate student Jonathan Butler walks in a "We Are Not Afraid" march Friday, Nov. 13. (Photo: Daniel Brenner, Columbia Daily Tribune via AP)
University of Missouri activist and graduate student Jonathan Butler walks in a We Are Not Afraid march Friday, Nov. 13. (Photo: Daniel Brenner, Columbia Daily Tribune via AP)

By Tavis Smiley

Every race of people should be judged by the best it has produced, not the worst.

To be sure, there are any number of individual black male success stories that the nation has come to respect, perhaps even revel in from time to time. But, collectively, black men still tend to be seen as not much more than menaces to society.

These are the kinds of chats I have routinely with the brothers at the Los Angeles LB4LB Boxing Gym weekday mornings as I’m preparing to get in the ring for my workout. These conversations about the sanctity of black male life — or lack thereof — have taken on a new urgency in our city as the Los Angeles Police Department has become the nation’s leader in the death-by-cop category.

Missouri tight end Jason Reese, speaks with members of the media after leaving the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex. Member's of Mizzou's football team supported other students on campus protesting racial mistreatment. (Photo: Nick Schnelle, Columbia Daily Tribune via AP)
Missouri tight end Jason Reese speaks with members of the media after leaving the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex. Mizzou’s football team supported other students on campus protesting racial mistreatment. (Photo: Nick Schnelle, Columbia Daily Tribune via AP)

Imagine then the spirited (and spirit-filled) conversation we had in the gym when news broke that protests by black members of the University of Missouri football team, alongside other students and faculty, forced the resignations of both the president and the chancellor for not doing enough in response to several race-related incidents on campus.

Our conversations surely reflected many that were (and likely still are) taking place on social media and among people of color all across this country. A question that immediately came to mind: Could the work of Mizzou’s fed-up-yet-determined Concerned Student 1950 group led by grad student Jonathan Butler, who waged a hunger strike, mark the beginning of a new civil rights movement?

The daring actions of these students — the hunger strike, the football players’ boycott, holding up in tents at the center of campus — reflected another time in America when the non-violent actions of young people helped galvanize change. 

In the 1960s, the work of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee — a national network of campus-based student groups that held sit-ins and peaceful demonstrations — helped turn the tide of the civil rights movement. In 1964, SNCC led Mississippi Freedom Summer, during which students traveled to the deep South to lead voter registration drives for disenfranchised blacks who were routinely kept from the polls. The movement was sparked by one event. On Feb. 1, 1960, four students from North Carolina A&T State University demanded service at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. Their decision to remain seated inspired students at another university to do the same, and SNCC, which organized demonstrations for students across the country, began. 

In the same way, the actions of Butler and the students at Mizzou have moved students on other campuses to demonstrate. Black students at Maryland’s Towson University held a sit-in after which interim-President Timothy Chandler signed a pledge to address their concerns on race. Towson is among the more than two dozen colleges across the nation who participated in the #StudentBlackOut on Nov. 18. The protest was organized by the growing, multicampus Black Liberation Collective

Courage is contagious.

John Lewis, right, now a member of Congress, was a leader of the 1963 March on Washington from the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. Here he stands with Martin Luther King Jr., and other march leaders. (Photo: AP)
John Lewis, right, now a member of Congress, was a leader of the 1963 March on Washington from the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. Here he stands with Martin Luther King Jr., and other march leaders. (Photo: AP)

The work of SNCC may not have immediately changed hearts, but it did help change laws, forcing the larger society to start treating black students, professionals and blue-collar workers as equals deserving not just a seat at lunch counters, but also equally protected votes at the ballot box.   

Could the ouster of former University of Missouri System president Tim Wolfe do the modern-day equivalent, causing the majority community to change its misguided view of young black men from a social menace deserving of police brutalization to one of well-educated contributor?

Hard questions in search of heart answers.

What we know is that these protests have an inverse relation to the data that are readily available about young black men. Young black males under the age of 20 are the most victimized by police. Of young black men born in 2001, about 1 in 3 will end up in prison; that number drops to 1 in 17 for their white male counterparts. The majority of males under the age of 20 who were killed by police during a seven-year time span ending in 2012 were black.

Too many fellow citizens see these black males as perps, not victims. But the onslaught of shoot-first-ask-questions-later videotaped evidence that we’ve seen over the past few years ought to convince us otherwise.

Black males have to stop volunteering, but the system has to stop victimizing.

At Mizzou, we saw black men defying the scourge-on-society label, and taking control with the most American of all strategies — protest. Butler’s sacrifice represents the very best of the black prophetic tradition in America — putting one’s life on the line for the greater good. Black student athletes joined him in solidarity by threatening to boycott games, and the rest, as they say, is now history.

And speaking of history, there were smiles all around the boxing gym when we started to reminisce about the black athletes back in the day who were willing to courageously speak truth to power. Muhammad Ali. Jim Brown. Bill Russell. Curt Flood. Professional athletes who were willing to risk their livelihoods and stand boldly with grace and dignity so that future generations could flower and flourish.

These are among the best black America has produced, and the student athletes at Mizzou honored their legacy by standing tall in that tradition, and working within the system to coerce change.

What a legacy they were bequeathed, what an example they have set.

So, is this a pivotal moment in a new black civil rights movement? I don’t rightly know. Only time will tell. What I do know is that movements are rare in America. But every movement starts with a moment that builds momentum.

I can feel it.

Can you?

Tavis Smiley is host and managing editor of Tavis Smiley on PBS, author of My Journey With Maya and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.