How Black America Has Influenced Social Movements Through Time


Social movements are nothing new in America, and black people have long been part of these struggles. Whether it’s pushing for human rights, climate change, ending wars, or sparking cultural revolutions, black Americans have been at the forefront of these 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 made headlines, Packnett Cunningham grew up attending protests and demonstrations with her family, and she continues to seek change as an adult. .

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

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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

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

Why are social movements necessary?

Cunningham Package: Social movements are necessary as long as injustice exists. We saw the work of fighting Jim Crow when the Reconstruction era was intentionally ended after the Civil War Jim Crow 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 move quickly, you move on to the 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 enter the civil rights movement, which many of us know, Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer and Mahalia Jackson.

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

What do you think are some of the misconceptions about people involved in social movements?

Cunningham Package: Wherever marginalized people take back their own power and authority and have agency, you will have narratives that will misinform the general public about who we are and what we stand for.

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

They said the same thing about my mother’s generation in 1968 after the assassinations of Dr. King and Malcolm X and others. And so we’ve seen these misconceptions be quite common. And they are always associated with black people, brown people, aboriginal people, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, low income people, immigrants who stand 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 symptoms, we should actually be killing the virus at its root and addressing what is actually causing this level of frustration.

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

Cunningham Package: My biggest advice is to start where you are. We’re caught up in a certain archetype of activism that means you have to be a big national or international name, you have to walk the streets or shout through a megaphone. And it’s a form of activism, but a lot of what affects us and impacts us all happens at the local level. Find the group in your local city or state that is making this happen, keeping its members informed, and giving you demonstrable steps to take against it.

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