Janaya Khan, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi — three leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement — headlined the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Lecture Wednesday evening, calling on audience members to join the struggle against injustice.
Garza and Tometi, who are two of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, and Janaya Khan, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto, were invited because of the similarities between their movement and the vision of Dr. King.
“The movement they initiated is a contemporary manifestation of Dr. King’s work to transform American society,” said Rev. Dr. Kenneth Clarke, chair of the King Commemoration Committee and director of Cornell United Religious Works. “[They are] addressing many of the same issues Dr. King grappled with such as racism, police brutality and an inequitable justice system.”
The event, which was hosted in collaboration with Ithaca College and the local community, consisted of a panel formed by the three activists and moderated by Prof. Sean Eversley Bradwell, culture, race and ethnicity, Ithaca College.
During the panel discussion, Khan said she believed that Black Lives Matter is especially resonant today because as a movement it “inherently challenges the beliefs of white supremacy.”
While Khan, Garza and Tometi spoke about the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement today, they also acknowledged the connection the movement had to the struggle of their ancestors.
In particular, they stated that they believed they had taken the reigns from prominent civil rights activists from the Black Panther movement, founded 50 years ago.
“Our tactics have evolved, but the premise and the platforms are the same. We’re still fighting for the same things we were fighting for 50 years ago and 100 years ago and 500 years ago,” Khan said. “Let’s not be fighting for the exact same thing 50 years from now.”
Garza said that Black Lives Matter’s embrace of the Black Panther movement anchored its ideology in many ways. She added that Black Lives Matter is rooted in love and that it was important to recognize that “not all violence is created equal.”
Rather than regressing to conversations about “black-on-black violence”— a phrase Garza said she hopes will retire — she suggested that people view violence in context and address underlying issues, one of which is the “double standard” that exists between black and white individuals.
“In white communities, you can be human and make mistakes,” she said. “When it comes to black folks, it’s not about your motivation, it never becomes about that. …. If you really want to address the root causes of violence, then you have to address the systems and structures and policies that make it possible.”
The panel also discussed George Zimmerman, who was acquitted after being charged for the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013. Garza emphasized that although this was a challenging time for the black community, it also demonstrated the strong bonds that unite them under one common mission.
“Those words ‘not guilty’ were a real indicator that there’s not love for black people,” Garza said. “The role of love is to encourage us to challenge what we can actually change. We can love ourselves and each other enough to say ‘enough is enough, this isn’t the way things have to be.’”
Tometi said she was called into action, not only by Zimmerman’s acquittal but by Garza’s proclamation that “Black Lives Matter.”
“Those three words really set into motion, for me, a new framework, a new paradigm, and what I think has been most moving is the fact that folks have responded to the call,” Tometi said. “We’re being told by our society that we’re less than, that we’re disposable, that our lives don’t matter and so black love has to be the ethos of our movement.”
Beyond the language of the movement, Garza also said that the past few years have reawakened many to injustices in this country.
“We’ve been in a period of what has been described as a post-racial society, a colorblind society,” Garza said. “We also have to numb ourselves to get by every single day.”
However, Garza said that repeated instances of police brutality and violence against black bodies, including the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. where Brown’s body was left on the street for several hours, had “demanded that people feel.”
“If you can’t feel that, then what have we become as human beings?” Garza asked.
Although they acknowledged their role as leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement, Khan, Garza and Tometi also charged the audience with taking up action.
“It’s not enough to just suggest that we’re sitting up here because we’re remarkable,” Khan said.
She continued saying that Bobby Seale, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur and other civil rights leaders in the past were not born remarkable, but instead by choosing to fight for freedom, justice and liberation, they chose to be remarkable.
Bringing the conversation back to today, Khan said she often hears individuals ask themselves what they would have done if they lived during the civil rights era.
“You don’t need to wonder,” she said. “It’s happening now.”
Ultimately, however, Khan, Garza and Tometi emphasized that although a major focus of the Black Lives Matter movement is black power and black consciousness, it ultimately is a movement to liberate everyone.
“The implications for what blackness means in this country and around the world impacts everyone,” Garza said. “This is not about you figuring out how you help me. This is about how we figure out how we help we.”