photography by Stephen Charles
How the city’s new, young leaders are using traditions of the past with hashtag activism in the #BlackLivesMatter Greensboro movement.
The four walk through the gift shop at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, past souvenirs, ballcaps, 1960s Sit-In Movement T-shirts, and through a door marked “Employees Only.” It leads to a large exhibit room and the original Woolworth’s lunch counter where, 55 years ago this month, four students sat down and asked to be served.
Had it happened in 2015 the A&T Four would likely have tweeted that first meeting: #SeparateIsNotEqual.
Today, four new leaders line up in the front of the lunch counter: Alexis Anderson, April Parker, Irving Allen, and Kristen Jeffers. Local photographer Stephen Charles snaps a few pictures. Then Charles says, “Okay, hands up.”
It’s “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” a gesture that’s brought a mix of respect and revolt since it first appeared at protests in the wake of the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. And it’s just as clear a sign about where you stand on the issues facing black America today as it was for a black man or woman to sit at a lunch counter in 1960s. Only today there’s a museum rope around the lunch counter.
“Trust,” says Parker. “Fifty-five years from now, they’ll thank us.”
In the last four months there’s been a visible increase in civic activity in Greensboro, spearheaded by the national Black Lives Matter movement, and locally mobilized by digital activists like Parker and many others. Motivated by traditions of the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s, such as the sit-ins, these young leaders are using new tools the keep the conversation going.
In November 210014, using social media and texts, protesters organized a 300-person march from the municipal building to the International Civil Rights Center & Museum and shut down South Elm Street in front of the museum.
In December, faculty, students and staff held a die-in at Bennett College.
In January, protesters packed city-council chambers to voice their support of the museum board’s concerns over the mayor’s offer for the city to run the museum.
This month, protesters held a daylong teach-in at Melvin Municipal Office Building, leading up to a council meeting where the council voted to keep the word “massacre” instead of “shootout” on the historical marker.
“There is increased activism, and I think that is a good thing,” says Mayor Nancy Vaughan, when asked if she’s noticed more civic activity from her side of the dais. “And I hope it will be sustained.”
In response to the Black Lives Matter Greensboro movement, Vaughan says the city is planning a series of conversations and hearings, starting on Feb. 24 at 6 p.m. at Bennett College. The first meeting will be on police accountability and neighborhood relations, Vaughan says.
“You have the trending topics… you see it in your newsfeed,” Anderson says about this hashtag activism. “There’s no way to escape it.”
Bennett College student and Student Government Association president
Social cause: Women’s rights
Moment: Helped organize a die-in on Bennett’s campus Dec. 4, where students, faculty and staff laid on the ground for 4.5 minutes — one minute for each hour Michael Brown’s body laid in the street after he was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
Hashtags: #BlackLivesMatter, #IAmMikeBrown, #IAmTrayvonMartin
Handles: Instagram @bennett_sga
Bennett College has a less publicized connection to the Sit-In movement, says Anderson. The administration at Bennett was more supportive than A&T when mass arrests took place in 1963, with President Willa Player instructing teachers to bring lessons to students in detention so they wouldn’t lose class credit. And this year, as Anderson and her classmates watched the news unfold in the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, they organized a campus-wide die-in using Instagram, Facebook and text messaging. Born in Philadelphia and raised in Jamaica, Anderson was also active in Greensboro’s March to the Polls event back in 2012. It feels surreal, but necessary, she says, to still be in the fight for civil rights.
How did you organize the die-ins?
After a couple non-indictments, we realized the uproar that was going around the nation. So as the [Student Government Association] we decided to have an awareness about what was going on, just to come together and love on each other. We thought about the idea on Tuesday and wanted to do it Thursday [Dec. 3] before finals started and everyone started packing up and going home for Christmas break.
Someone on my team is a public events specialist and we have a special events coordinator. The public relations specialist created a flier, we approved it, then the coordinator told us how she’d like the program to look. On the fliers we had photos of three of the victims, [Trayvon Martin, John Crawford and Michael Brown] we had the date and the time, a memo of where to meet and we blasted it all over social media.
We put it on our SGA Instagram, our personal Instagram, Facebook page for the different classes. We sent it out in emails — we also sent texts. It was too late to do the fliers around. That die-in was definitely fueled by social media and after the die-in we had photographs taken, videos made, and we put them up on Instagram so we could share with the world what was going on on our campus.
What issues are close to you, and why?
Women’s rights. Going to an all-women’s college you get to relate to other women, you get to react to other women on a daily basis, so when our rights are being attacked we have to be concerned about that.
The black males that we lost, it could have been anyone to us. It could have been our uncles, our brothers, fathers, cousins, our friend, anyone. So those issues that affect my people, and that affect women, also affect myself.
How do you see your role in using social media in this moment?
Just paying it forward and continuing the legacy, and allowing others to see that you can be a part of what was already created, just continue to do it, and let our voices be heard.
Radical librarian and field organizer for RaiseUp15
Social cause: Queer People of Color Collective
Moment: #BlackLivesMatter and everything, from the recent #WakeUpOurMayor events to Queer Yoga
Hashtags: #StopTransMurders, #WinterOfResistance, #BlackLivesMatterGreensboro
Handles: Facebook, Queer People of Color Collective
April Parker seems to be doing the work of two movements. She’s arm in arm with leaders and organizers in the Black Lives Matter Greensboro events, such as the #WakeUpYourMayor campaign at city hall. As a queer person of color, she’s working to end the historical erasure of gay and lesbian leaders in the movement of the 1960s. When she first moved to Greensboro from New Jersey to get a master’s degree at UNCG, she bought some rocking chairs and started building community on her front porch. Social media gives her the tools and the access to share stories about the queer artists, thinkers and revolutionaries who have been missing from the library shelves and history books.
Do you see yourself fighting two fights?
No. To me, it’s the same thing. Two out of the three people who actually did that hashtag #BlackLivesMatter were queer women of color. So if you’re not owning that this is a queer-started thing, that there’s a history of resistance, it’s not coming to the battle cry of Black Lives Matter, you’re not including the black lives who are queer. I think it’s the same thing.
Who are your role models?
For me it always goes back to Bayard Rustin. The revolutionaries, like James Baldwin, and all those people that kicked it together. Martha Johnson and the Stonewall Riots people, these are brilliant people that we just don’t know about.
Greensboro has its own Bayard Rustin Center at Guilford College. My twin brother is the LGBTQ coordinator over there and that name was given to the college by [Rustin’s] partner. Bayard was an openly black gay man, Quaker, he was a socialist and really involved in all the movements. It wasn’t just civil rights. He was all over the place.
He schooled [Martin Luther] King. He was King’s teacher. When you think about MLK you only think about MLK, you don’t think about his supporting team. Bayard was a part of that camp and the only reason he got cut out of it was because he was an openly black gay man. When he was getting arrested, he was getting arrested for having sex. And everybody has sex. Everybody f***s in a car. But because of those scandals, they distanced themselves from him.
What are some of your principles of activism?
Activism really stems from that thing of belonging, that connectedness, that healing. My leadership principles are founded in some African tribe traditions that I found while I was studying librarianship as a form of activism, like Sankofa, the idea of going back and reviewing our revolutions so we can pull things that work into our present-day revolution.
Ubuntu was a real big thing for me, because usually when you do anything about LGBTQ it’s about “unhealthy, dead, or dying.” For me, what QPOCC originally was, was showing the ways in which we were thriving and surviving. How people were being resilient in those days. How people were being magic. So if somebody was really excited about art, I would host a queer art show. It’s about the very uniqueness. I am only so great as the people around me, and that’s no s***: to organize a space for people to be held and known, have access to themselves and to each other.
How are you using social media?
We’re echoing those that have become before us. That’s what the Black Lives Matter movement locally, nationally and globally has been really good about: Honoring those that have come before us, our elders.
They’re being really intentional about that. We’re using a lot of the things we’ve learned from our ancestors. The sit-ins, the teach-ins, those are not new tools. And there’s a groundswell where people, we’ve come to a line that’s so visible. There’s no indictment, there’s no accountability, there’s no relief. So this is a means to end for survival. That’s what I think. Social media has a lot to do this with insistent resistance, and pushing back.
Community organizer at Beloved Community Center
Social cause: #BlackLivesMatter
Moment: Helped organized the 300-person march past the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in late November.
Hashtags: #RevolutionaryLove, #BlackLivesMatter, #ItIsOurDutyToFight
Handles: Twitter and Instagram @gsovotingvoices
The Greensboro native is nephew to David Richmond, one of the original A&T Four. Allen started using social media as a party and music promoter in Greensboro between 2009 and 2011; today he’s promoting the Beloved Community Center. He’s also the Triad coordinator for Ignite NC, a statewide youth training program, and he’s communications chair for the Greensboro chapter of the NAACP. You’ll see Allen everywhere, from co-chairing a community meeting in a church basement, to assisting the Rev. Nelson Johnson at a recent public hearing for the 1979 Greensboro Massacre historical marker.
Why are you so busy right now?
There’s an awakening that’s been happening all across the country. You can say it happened with Trayvon Martin, but it’s connected to so many movements. Occupy played a part in it, Arab Spring played a part in it. Amendment One.
And a lot of these people involved are coming from those battles and they’re bringing their experience. This Black Lives Matter movement is really just spearheaded with the energy of the younger generation and addressing our issues through our leadership. And our leadership is young. Like us.
Right now, we’re just working. This is what I do every day. Just like people get up and drive a bus every day; this is what I do.
How are you using social media to get the job done?
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram are the most powerful tools that I use to mobilize folks for meetings and rallies.
We directly relied on social media in response to non-indictment [in November]. We scheduled meetings of local organizers that work with the Black Lives Matter movement. We got together that night, and we got in the room together, and got on our phones and tweeted and Facebooked out. A little over 300 people came out.
We develop hashtags with what we’ve categorized, like #WinterOfResistence, #ColdestWinterEver, so people could locate what we’re doing and so we can archive what we’re doing.
Then meeting people and talking to them about the work, asking them to follow us on Facebook and stay informed, and we build personal relationships. That mixed with all of what’s going on in the context of our society, it really inspires us to react what ever we’re talking about online.
They started news organizations out there on Twitter, and that’s how we knew about the protests. It wasn’t CNN, or any of these major networks, it was people who got on live streams, with their phones, and they’re like, “We’re out here.”
How did you go from promoter to community organizer?
I used to host open-mic events for a local artist. And those skills directly translate to community organizer. I’ve always been involved in voter registration, but it was seasonal, and a lot of the work didn’t relate to the issues that I’m working with now.
Rev. [Nelson] Johnson and Wesley Morris — they started connecting some of the issues with voting [to the struggles today], and I started learning from them and educating myself on the history of organizing and how all these things are connected. During the Obama Campaign in ’08, I didn’t have the context of how voting related, how not being represented can affect an entire community; how a community is affected.
Across the board, people of color are disproportionately served from healthcare, to education to policing; underrepresented and mistreated. The core of the Black Lives Matter movement is to build solutions around how we combat that narrative.
Writer, speaker, founder of Black Urbanist and North Carolina Placebook
Social cause: Urban planning issues as they relate to African Americans
Moment: In addition to writing for Black Urbanist and managing her newsletter, Jeffers live-tweets from national transportation conferences .
Hashtags: #UrbanPlanning #SmartGrowth #Gentrification #BlackLivesMatter
Handles: Instagram and Twitter @blackurbanist
Transportation has always played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement, Jeffers says, going back to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Post-Ferguson, protesters are blocking areas where people are trying to get where they need to go: highways and subways, not just parks or plazas. As a writer and public speaker, Jeffers uses social media to promote her blogs, tweets live from urban planning conferences, and sends out an email newsletter focused on urban planning.
How is social media playing a role in the work you’re doing?
This new Civil Rights Movement is a social-media movement. For me specifically, it’s letting people know what gentrification is (or isn’t). It’s letting people know who the power players are in town by sharing media stories about them. It’s bringing complex zoning codes down into language that people understand and can take action about.
Why are you focused on urban planning?
I focus a lot on the systemic stuff. Is it the way that they’re building? Is it our road, how we’re electing people? Is this contributing to seeing people get killed, to seeing people lose homes and constantly seeing all this sad stuff happen?
On a systemic level, you have far too many people living too far from job centers. There should be more options, we should give people more options. There used to be buses that came to rural areas. My grandparents talked about taking buses from rural areas into town, and you didn’t have to worry about the cost of driving. And to me it comes down to income-equality issue. If you’re forced to drive, or you’re at the mercy of a bus schedule, or increasingly, more places are more desirable because they’re closer to amenities. Those things are how I see transportation being part of social justice.
What’s your email newsletter about and how is it different from Black Urbanist?
North Carolina Placebook was something I started because I felt that as a whole, people were not staying informed of news that actually affects them. Yes, people know sports news, crimes and arrests and maybe what new restaurant is opening. Yet, when it comes to things like rezoning requests (that could be as a result of gentrification), what their elected officials are doing at the local and state level or why bus fares are going up.
Whereas on the Black Urbanist I’m examining issues in depth and those issues aren’t just Greensboro specific. On North Carolina Placebook, the focus is knowing what’s going on throughout the state, so one can compare notes and take necessary action.
Do you see your see your blogs, email newsletter and live tweets as part of your contribution to the ongoing Civil Rights Movement happening today? And how so?
We all encounter transportation in some shape, with the basic level being using our two legs to get around. Plus, it’s often road projects that change neighborhoods and take away opportunities for commerce, i.e. the Durham Freeway. Yet, most of the people in those conference rooms are government officials, people who are building roads, people who are planning roads. Yet, these are policies that affect everyone.
Some of our greatest civil rights battles happened on public transportation. People need to be aware of how transportation plays a factor in equal opportunity and civil rights. I’m always going to be cheerleading issues urban planning as they relate to African Americans.
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