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How Black America has influenced social movements through time

"Social movements are necessary as long as injustice exists," said Packnett Cunningham, author and social justice activist.
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Social movements are nothing new in America, and Black people have long been part of those fights. Whether it’s been to push for human rights, climate change, ending wars or starting cultural revolutions, Black Americans have been on the front lines of those efforts for centuries.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham knows all about social movements. Today she is a social justice activist and co-founder of Campaign Zero, an organization dedicated to ending police brutality. But before Black Lives Matter and police reform efforts were front-page news, Packnett Cunningham grew up attending protests and demonstrations with her family, and she continues pursuing change as an adult.

“Black people in America have been fighting to be free since 1619, since the days that many of our ancestors were brought to these shores unjustly and built a country for free that still does not treat us as equal citizens,” Packnett Cunningham said. “We have a real duty, frankly, to make sure that if all of us aren't free, we do the work to get all of us free.”

This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.

What are the origins of social movements in the Black community?

Brittany Packnett Cunningham: The roots of freedomacross the Black diaspora are broad and they are deep. They are creative and innovative. They are powerful. They are spiritual. They are based in community love and faith that we can have the kind of life here on Earth that we deserve. And in America, it is rooted in abolitionist movements to escape from the scourge of the system of enslavement and the transatlantic slave trade that affected everyone in the Americas.

Why are social movements needed?

Packnett Cunningham: Social movements are necessary for as long as injustice exists. We've seen the work to fight against Jim Crow when the Reconstruction era was intentionally ended after the Civil War, Jim Crow was what took its place. And that's when you saw the rise of things like the KKK and the kind of racial terror of lynching.

You fast forward, you move to Black labor movements, people like A. Philip Randolph, who was one of the planners of the March on Washington and had been trying to do it for several years. We move into the civil rights movement, which so many of us know, Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer and Mahalia Jackson.

But there's also the Black Power and Black arts movement. And we think about the Black Panthers and the creation of Kwanzaa. And this movement today that people are experiencing, it is not new. It is simply a new chapter in a book that has been written for generations.

In your opinion, what are some of the misconceptions about those involved in social movements?

Packnett Cunningham: Wherever marginalized people take our own power back and are authoritative and have agency, you will have narratives that misinform the mainstream public about who we are and what we stand for.

So over the summer, as an example, during the uprising that we saw this summer in places like Minneapolis, after the killing of George Floyd; in Louisville, Kentucky, after the killing of Breonna Taylor; in Florida, after the killing of a Black trans man named Tony McDade, we saw a narrative start to spread that we were violent, that we were the real racists, that we were looters.

They were saying the same thing about my mom's generation in 1968 after the assassinations of Dr. King and Malcolm X and others. And so we've seen those misconceptions be quite common. And they are always associated with Black people, brown people, Indigenous people, LGBTQ folks, disabled people, low-income folks, immigrants standing up for what is ours. Dr. King said a riot is the language of the unheard. So instead of dismissing what people may perceive as the symptoms, we should actually kill the virus at its root and get down to what is actually causing this level of frustration.

If someone wanted to get involved with a social movement, what would you advise them to do?

Packnett Cunningham: My biggest piece of advice is to start where you are. We get caught up in a certain archetype of activism that means you have to be a big national or international name, that you have to be marching in the streets or yelling through a bullhorn. And that is one form of activism, but so much of what affects and impacts all of us is happening at the local level. Find the group in your local town, city or state that is making it happen on this, that are keeping their members informed and are giving you demonstrable actions to take to fight back against that.

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