When Sheila Pree Bright received a call to travel to Atlanta and document the Martin Luther King Birthday parade this January, she wasn’t sure what to expect.
The fine arts photographer and visual/cultural producer ended up shooting a contentious exchange between civil rights era attendees and today’s generation of spirited protesters, many of whom reportedly disrupted the parade by lying in the street and vehemently voicing their frustrations concerning the fight for social justice.
“I observed older people with a saddened expression that young people were doing this. The elders told them you ought to be ashamed of yourself,” she recalled. “But the youth said they were tired of the commercialization of MLK and that he was more about resistance. I never felt so much tension.”
Inspired by that event and springing from her street art photo project of unsung civil rights youth leaders, “1960 Who,” Bright decided to start a portrait series of today’s leaders paired with those of the 1960s.
“Throughout my travels I feel like no one is listening to one another. What I would like to do is inspire an intergenerational dialogue at this critical moment.”
Included in the current exhibition, "1960 Now," on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, are Kwame Rose and Charles Person. Rose, is a social activist and artist who garnered national attention for a street debate with Geraldo Rivera during the Baltimore protests over Freddie Gray’s death. Person, is the youngest member of the 1961 Freedom Ride and was active in Atlanta’s sit-in movement to integrate lunch counters.
“Throughout my travels I feel like no one is listening to one another. What I would like to do is inspire an intergenerational dialogue at this critical moment,” said Bright. “In black culture we are so powerful and don’t realize it until we come together.”
In the spirit of Bright’s exhibition, NBCBLK contributor, Souleo facilitated an intergenerational phone conversation between Rose and Person—who never before met each other. In the following discussion both men share their views on the respective movements they belong to, old school vs. new school protest strategies, police brutality and concerns about the way forward.
Kwame Rose: In the Black Lives Matter movement we are trying to figure out what we can accomplish. We are tired of everything and this is the tipping point because we shouldn’t fight the same battles our grandparents fought.
Charles Person: You have a great start. I differ with some of the semantics being used and I want to prevent riots and stuff like that. I think you should avail yourself of people willing to help. There are many Freedom Riders that want to support you. But every movement has to find its own way. We want to let you be aware there are forces you will contend with that we never had to. We never had people infiltrate the movement to disrupt us. They infiltrated to report to others but not redirect what we were doing. We had more control over our demonstrations. We never had night demonstrations because bad people use darkness to cover good things. We had monitors to make sure things went our way.
I used to be critical of Dr. King until an elder told me he would come to cities and stay until the problem was fixed.
You have to be in control and have people interspersed who will carry out your leadership objective. It is not difficult to do. In the Black Lives Matter demonstrations people are infiltrating groups to discredit them. They know you can be successful but they are trying to undermine it in the public eye and diminish what you want to say.
Kwame Rose: I think now more people are infiltrating because of social media. People get this platform and talk to large audiences as if they are part of the struggle. I used to be critical of Dr. King until an elder told me he would come to cities and stay until the problem was fixed.
If you ask around people don’t know who some of these prominent figures are in Black Lives Matter, because after the cameras leave there is no spillover effect. Nothing has changed in Baltimore. Baltimore wasn’t organized or strategic not to go out at night. But I think it also showed the fearlessness of this generation.
Charles Person: You have to change the narrative. Don’t let people define you and your movement. Many cops don’t realize we are not the enemy. But we have got to assert ourselves in a positive manner. There are bad guys out there and we need law enforcement. But the average citizen is not the enemy. We must know that and they must know that.
Kwame Rose: I don’t think police see the difference between good and bad when it comes to black. Even in a suit you’re still a nigger in a suit. So even in peaceful protests with our hands up the police see us as a threat. There is still a fear of black bodies. White supremacy rules society and that’s what allows police to show up with riot gear.
Soon as we make progress in one area there is another impediment like the school-to-prison pipeline, which is a new twist on an old deal.
Charles Person: We all must remember since 9/11 we are different people. There is fear in the nation. We are afraid of our own shadow. Fear surrounds us. It is crazy. I don’t know the answer to how can we rid ourselves of this fear.
Kwame Rose: My biggest fear about being an activist is not death. My biggest fear is that I will be in a position of my elders and wonder, did we really create change or did we just pacify our situation for the time being?
Charles Person: I think we all forget that while you’re thinking of ways to remedy the situation the other guys are thinking too. The ones discriminating are thinking too. Soon as we make progress in one area there is another impediment like the school-to-prison pipeline, which is a new twist on an old deal. So we have to think outside of the box to continually deal with these problems. The job is daunting but it is not insurmountable.
Kwame Rose: I remember in a conversation with Harry Belafonte, Dr. King said, ‘I've come to believe we're integrating into a burning house.’ I think the Baltimore uprising made me realize the house is on fire and we have to put the fire out. Everything changed through segregation. We stopped depending ourselves. We had desegregation but never truly had integration. Black lives don’t matter because not too many white people interacted with black lives and they see us as thugs and criminals.
Charles Person: You’re right and one other aspect that makes it difficult is that you have conservative radio that demonizes us. What so many pundits say is not true but they drive an audience that makes it difficult for you and me. Also when I grew up the policemen were over six feet and weighed over 200 pounds. Now you have police 5’8” weighing 130 pounds.
My biggest fear is that I will be in a position of my elders and wonder, did we really create change or did we just pacify our situation for the time being?
We have teenagers who are over six feet now and might weigh 300 pounds. So small cops must confront them. Plus there was always two cops in a car but now it is one cop with a gun. So lots of times not knowing the past and how things used to operate makes it difficult for all of us. We need to go back and study what happened 50 years ago to understand how things evolved.
Kwame Rose: With this conversation I continue to learn more and more. As much as I go on record and say it is the youth’s time I think these conversations help guide the movement. It’s good to know where you came from and I thank you for talking to me.
Charles Person: I know that you can change the world and I'd like to help you. I know you will be successful.
Kwame Rose: Thank you so much. I am just a reflection of you, brother.
[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity]