Are we in a new civil rights movement?
Sam Heath, manager of the Evangelical Network, posed this question to historian and author Jemar Tisby during a recent webinar.
Hosted by Equal Justice USA, “a national organization that works to transform the justice system by promoting responses to violence that break cycles of trauma,” the conversation focused on the North American church’s duty to truth and to truth-telling regarding race, criminal justice and the legal system.
“It feels like it,” Tisby said. “It’s dangerous for a historian to pontificate on the present. We focus on the past. I look at race, religion and social movements in the 20th century, specifically the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement. And there are all the elements now that we saw in the movement of the past.”
“There are urgent issues. There is the repealing of rights and opposition to progress. There are distinct ‘sides’ to the things that are happening. There are instances of, in particular, police brutality,” he said. “All of the elements that we saw in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s that went into this massive social upheaval around racial justice, in particular, we have those now.”
For Tisby, the elements are in full view, whether his assessment of the present is shared by fellow historians or not. What is most important for him is that Christians act in response to the injustices they are witnessing in real time.
“What more injustices do you need to see? How much more urgency do you need to feel in order for you to acknowledge that right now we need to do something?” he asked viewers.
Tisby makes it plain and plain to see. With historical accuracy and the passion of an educator, he makes the case for why Christians need to embody justice.
Reminding the audience of how this second iteration of the civil rights movement began, he referred to himself and others as “the Trayvon Martin generation.”
Not unlike the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, the killing of the unarmed 17-year-old in 2012 by a former neighborhood watch captain named George Zimmerman sparked a national conversation on criminality and policing as well as protest. It also commissioned another generation in the fight for social justice.
Associated Press writer Deepti Hajela wrote in February that the “teen’s death changed the nation.” Profiled because of race, Martin’s death struck an eerily familiar chord with the African American community and a nerve.
Tisby also pointed to two other inflection points. The murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, when the chant of “Black Lives Matter” was met with the response, “Blue Lives Matter,” and the Facebook Live broadcasting of the shooting of Philando Castille in the Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, metropolitan region.
“If I were alive during the civil rights movement” of the 1960s is a familiar opening statement for persons who imagine themselves walking alongside Martin Luther King, Jr.
But what about today? The question speaks to one’s proximity to truth and relationship with justice.
With 81% of socially colored white evangelicals voting for Donald Trump as president in the 2016 election despite his history of racism, this made it hard for Tisby and his family to feel understood or safe.
“It said, ‘These people don’t know me at all.’ They don’t know my reality as a Black man or our reality as a Black family,” Tisby shared.
Their vote, Tisby said, felt like “a callous disregard for what was a very existential reality for me and being so proud of and so excited about the election of this individual who represented honestly so much moving backwards in terms of what we were trying to do to promote racial justice.”
After the election of Trump, Tisby said that he didn’t feel emotionally or spiritually safe going back to church. Consequently, he understood why Christians were leaving.
Tisby argues that the recurring instances of police brutality, coupled with the current state of American politics, calls for the North American church to pick a side.
To view a recording of the webinar, click here.