To Take Place and Have a Place: On Religion, White Supremacy & the People’s Movement in Ferguson

By Laura McTighe

This is the first in a series of articles that Laura McTighe will be writing for The Revealer over the next year about issues at the intersection of race and religion. She will be writing about incarceration, activism and organizing, reproductive justice, and more, with an eye to questions of history, violence, and justice.

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France Francois at the National Moment of Silence/Day of Rage protest in Washington D.C. on August 14, 2014. (Photo: @callmedollar)

“I CANNOT BELIEVE I STILL HAVE TO PROTEST THIS SHIT!!” the block pink letters of France Francois’ sign fired with exasperation. The date was August 14, 2014. Michael Brown had been shot and killed by Ferguson, Missouri police officer, Darren Wilson, just five days prior. Francois was one of thousands who took to the streets in cities across the country as part of the National Moment of Silence/Day of Rage. People in Ferguson had not left the streets since Michael Brown’s murder. “I think, throughout the nation, we’re all asking ourselves this question: ‘How did we come here again? How did we find ourselves in this very same space?’” Francois told AlterNetin an interview shortly after the protest. Indeed, how did we?

Undeniably, the death of Michael Brown has erupted onto the national scene in a way that few murders of black and brown people by police have. That itself is remarkable. In the wake of Ferguson, there are many questions that have been bubbling through the country… Why Ferguson? (Where is Ferguson?) Why notNew York? Who will be next? The question I have found most troubling is the repeated inquiry by activists, pundits and scholars alike: Will Ferguson be a moment or will it become a movement?

At face value, this might not seem like an inappropriate question to ask. The uprising in Ferguson has shone a vital and painful spotlight onthe everyday terror of anti-black violence in our country. Many worry that this attention will be fleeting; they wonder if the organizing in Ferguson will be able spur a more radical transformation of the people, policies and institutions that perpetuate the devaluing of black life.

What I want to call our attention to is a pair of claims that are embedded in the moment vs. movement juxtaposition: first is a claim about how change happens; second is a claim about what counts in American history.

Of the many articles that have been penned in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder, two in particular put a point on the vision of social change swirling around the moment/movement question: educator Josie Pickens’ August 18th article in Ebony magazine, “Ferguson: What’s Respectability Got to Do with It” and historian Jeanne Theoharis’ August 26th piece for MSNBC, “The arc of justice runs through Ferguson.” Both criticize reporting that has portrayed the protesters in Ferguson as disorganized, reckless, even dangerous. Moreover, both call us to examine how a sanitized version of the civil rights movement – stripped of its poor, young and female leadership – undergirds such critiques. In Theoharis’ words, “Such framings memorialize a civil rights movement without young people in the vanguard, without anger, without its longstanding and ongoing critique of the criminal justice system.” Through these fables, we are made to believe that Ferguson must be a moment, because “real movements” do not look like this.

These fables also resign us to a jack-in-the-box approach to social movement history. “Real movements” are past and temporally bounded. A “real movement” pops UP when people make a large (but not too large) demand; it goes DOWN (or is put down) when that demand is met (or is too threatening). It is a thing for the history books. By this account, “real movements” are not only sanitized; they are exceptionalized. And so, too, are the social conditions they seek to address. In this way, we can only ask if Ferguson will become a movement, because we are telling a story of the United States in which there is no continuity of black struggle, much less a need for it.

We can only ask if Ferguson will become a movement, because we are telling a story of the United States in which there is no continuity of black struggle, much less a need for it.

What power dynamics are at work when the protests in Ferguson are treated like the colorful explosion of the jack-in-the-box? What is at stake in viewing black resistance in such an episodic way? What cannot be seen when it is viewed this way? These questions are at the heart of the#BlackLivesMatter systematic call to action – a call issued in response to the ways in which black lives have been devalued and black suffering has been rendered illegible. In this tradition, I want to call us to a deeper appreciation for the movement being carried forward at Ferguson. To do so, we must commit ourselves to resurrecting events that have systematically been made to vanish from our consciousness. We need to appreciate the often-untold history of black poor people’s movements, as well as the long tradition of black critiques of the everyday rituals of white supremacy. We also need to account for the ways in which our notions of justice and liberation are inflected by religious language and sensibility. This takes us back not simply to the Civil Rights era, nor even to Jim Crow, but rather to the founding of the American republic. It is an uncomfortable history, but it is vital for us to tell it if we are to appreciate what it means to be living into the possibility of justice with the movement still-alive in Ferguson.

Resurrection #1: The Religious Practice of White Supremacy

Generations of scholars and activists have helped to peel back the mythology that surrounds the founding of our nation, revealing the often-unstated raced (as well as gendered and classed) assumptions of American democracy. As historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg argues, for the founding fathers to create a shared mythic heritage of liberty and justice for all, they had to first imagine themselves against an expanding group of “Others” – black people, indigenous people, women, the propertyless: Difference perceived as dangerous, distained as polluting, demanding expulsion, formed a critical component of America’s new national identity.” The strength of this national imperative to purify the body politic comes from its rooting in our religious history and heritage. That may be a different way of thinking about religion than we are used to doing. By religion here, I am not talking about church services or even sacred texts. Rather, I am thinking about what holds communities together – the ritual acts they practice, as well as the moral obligations and myths they create in the process. Treating religion in this way enables us to ask questions about the relationship between what the founding fathers said (liberty) and did (violence). It also attunes us to the ways in which our national identity has been indelibly marked by this process of culture making in which the freedom of some necessitates the expulsion of Others.

Whether we are trying to understand our past as a slave society or our present as a prison society, we have a responsibility to point out the existence of systemic anti-black violence and to unravel the curiously religious mystique that surrounds it.

Whether we are trying to understand our past as a slave society or our present as a prison society, we have a responsibility to point out the existence of systemic anti-black violence and to unravel the curiously religious mystique that surrounds it. Doing so forces us to reckon with white supremacy, not as the purview of a few exceptional racists, but rather as a pervasive ideology that is produced and reproduced through everyday, mundane practices of living in America. Without this curious religious history of anti-black racism, the mass murder of young people like Michael Brown (and the effective social death of millions of black and brown people through their essential removal from society via mass incarceration and hyper-ghettoization) would likely be unthinkable and impracticable.

Resurrection #2: The Black Prophetic Critique of White Supremacy

Lesley McSpadden dropping rose petals on the blood stains from her 18-year-old son Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Mo. on Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014. (Photo: AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Huy Mach) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/ap/article-2721021/Missouri-crowd-shooting-Kill-police.html

Lesley McSpadden dropping rose petals on the blood stains from her 18-year-old son Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Mo. on Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014. (Photo: AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Huy Mach) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/ap/article-2721021/Missouri-crowd-shooting-Kill-police.html 

“You’re not God, you don’t get to decide when you get to take somebody from here.” These words were uttered by Lesley McSpadden immediately after her son, Michael Brown, was shot and killed; her cry quakes with the anguish of a mother who has just lost her child. In the intervening weeks, as further details about his murder have surfaced, theprophetic Christian tradition has provided many on the ground with further clarity and resolution. As youth pastorNyle Fort explained: “We understand that Michael Brown was not only murdered by an individual officer but crucified at the hands of an entire white supremacist police force.”

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Mamie Till Bradley speaking to anti-lynching rally after an all white jury acquitted the two men accused of killing her son. Sumner, Mississippi, September 23, 1955. (Photo: Grey Villet/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Here, I want to draw our attention to yet another way of thinking about religion – as a mode of argumentation for naming injustice and for calling all who witness it to action. Such prophetic speech is critical to the long black radical tradition in the United States – from Frederick Douglass’ disassociation of slaveholding religion from the Christianity of Christ, to Ida B. Wells’ indictment of the religious underpinnings of Jim Crow terror, to Anthea Butler’scritique of the nightly prayers police in Ferguson recited before going out to harass and arrest protesters. Such prophetic speech also commands a response. JournalistIsabel Wilkersonwas not alone in calling out the troubling similarities between the lynching tree and the sight of Michael Smith’s murdered body left lying in the street for four hours in the hot August sun. Mamie Till Bradley answered this call in 1955 when she insisted upon an open-casket funeral after her son, Emmett Till, was lynched in Mississippi, because she “wanted the world to see what they did to my boy.” In this tradition, we might also recognize the prophetic cry of Ferguson residents, who took to the streets to slow down the news cycle and force the nation to collectively acknowledge and mourn Michael Brown’s murder. 

Resurrection #3: The Long Tradition of Black Radicalism

A further interpretive step is needed if we are not to mistake this tradition of prophetic critique for mere reaction – that is, to tell a story in which white violence comes first, and black critique comes second. Yes, the present-day movement in Ferguson is responding to the long history of white supremacy in the United States, and to the everyday possibilities and limitations that anti-black violence imposes upon local residents. But that does not mean that resistance in Ferguson is predicated on this violence. Put another way, local residents in Ferguson have risen up in response to the murder of Michael Brown, but the roots of their resistance go deeper than Michael Brown’s murder, deeper even than the long history of white supremacy in the United States. The vocabulary of black struggle was not created by white supremacy. It was created by black people.

The vocabulary of black struggle was not created by white supremacy. It was created by black people.

Affirming this opens up new possibilities for understanding the political action that is already happening on the ground – for thinking anew about the place of the past in the present, and for the ways we might envision the future. If the strength of the uprising in Ferguson is surprising, we would do well to ask ourselves: What are some of the movement stories and models that have been passed down by generations of black residents in Ferguson? How do they shape the collective call to action that erupted onto the national stage when Michael Brown was murdered? What new futures are actively being imagined and emplotted by organizers on the ground in Ferguson?

Resurrection #4: The Rich History of Black Feminist Organizing

As a final step in this incomplete process of resurrections, I want to lift up the stories of three black women visionaries whose intellectual and organizing models are part of the movement being carried forward in Ferguson…

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Rosa Parks at a 1984 protest outside the South African Embassy in Washington, DC. (Photo: Jim Hubbard)

Jeanne Theoharis’ MSNBC article might have been officially titled “The arc of justice runs through Ferguson,” but anyone who viewed the piece through social media saw a different one: “Why Rosa Parks would have been on the front lines in Ferguson.” This was no mere speculation on Theoharis’ part. What she urged us to remember was the full movement life of Mrs. Rosa Parks – from her work in rural Alabama bearing witness to people’s stories of lynching to her support of the Black Power struggle long after the supposed “end” to the civil rights movement.

For Josie Pickens, it was Fannie Lou Hamer who provided inspiration. In contrast to the iconic

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Fannie Lou Hamer leading protesters on Capitol Hill in 1965. (Photo: AP)

civil rights movement era images of meticulously crafted mobilizations like Freedom Summer, Pickens implored us to imagine Ferguson as “a movement of Fannie Lou Hamers” – that youngest daughter of sharecroppers in rural Montgomery County, Mississippi who mobilized tens of thousands of poor black people in the 1950s and 1960s, putting the racist violence in her state on the national stage. In Fannie Lou Hamer’s civil rights movement, people protested to “support whatever is right, and to bring in justice where we’ve had so much injustice.

To this lineage we might add Callie House, the poor Tennessee washerwoman who traversed the Southern landscape to build a 500,000 member-strong national movement for reparations at the turn of the 20th century. On the national stage, she led freedpeople in indicting the federal government as an accomplice in their oppression, petitioning Congress and then suing the Federal Court for ex-slave pensions. For this work, Callie House was, in the words of Mary Frances Berry, “praised by poor African Americans, ridiculed by the race’s elites, and targeted by high government officials, who feared her influence with the masses, and eventually land in jail.”

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Callie House pictured on an Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty & Pension Association broadside, c1898. (Photo: Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, RG 15)

On Living into the Possibility for Justice

Over Labor Day weekend, New York Magazine featured a series of sixteen “Portraits of Ferguson’s Most Tenacious Protesters.” A quote from Desha Jones, a good friend of Michael Brown’s, closes the piece. She speaks from the encampment she has been part of organizing:

“I’m not going anywhere until justice is served. This is my home now. I go home to shower, then back out. My daughter is currently with her father. My momma take care of that for me because she knows that this is real and this is bigger than us.”

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Desha Jones at The Lost Voices tent city in Ferguson, Mo. in late-August 2014. (Photo: Jada Yuan)

The question before us is not whether Ferguson will be a moment or become a movement.

The question is whether or not we are ready to join a movement of Desha Joneses, of Fannie Lou Hamers, of Callie Houses, of Rosa Parkses… To really join.

That is no simple question. To do so we have to take seriously our own enmeshment in the very systems of domination that we are trying to understand and transform. We have to take risks. We have to ask different questions. We have to listen for different answers.

We also have to learn to tell different stories.

What does it look like if we drill down and ask how the movement in Ferguson is being made in real time, with real bodies, through real interactions? Here, we find The Organization for Black Struggle, Missourians

Organized for Reform and Empowerment (MORE), The Lost Voicesand so many movement homes are on the ground in Ferguson; we find hundreds of people who journeyed in the Black Life Matters Ride to lend support and learn from residents’ practices of organized resistance; we find UPS workerswho could not bear delivering military armaments to the Missouri police; we find Palestinianswho tweeted ideas for how to deal with tear gas to the people of Ferguson; we find the womenwho set up spaces where the youth of Ferguson could come to scream, cry, and be held and heard… We know that we are not seeing as many of these moments as we could, because journalists have often preferred film bombed out buildings, not collective sandwich lines and medic stations. And we know that this occlusion is another side of the overt anti-black racism that led white Missourians to go door-to-door, computer-to-computer, collecting a reward for Darren Wilson and his family…

From this present, pregnant with struggle, we might be able to appreciate the gravity and brilliance of the demands issued by Ferguson youth, in which a call for “revolution” is noticeably and hauntingly absent (much like the demands issued by hunger strikers in California prisons). What are they teaching us about the process of living into the possibility for justice? What would it mean for their movement to take place and have a place?

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Laura McTighe is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Religion at Columbia University, studying the religious traditions of North America. Through her dissertation, “Born in Flames,” she is working with leading Black feminist organizations in Louisiana to explore how reckoning with the richness of southern Black women’s intellectual and organizing traditions will help us to understand (and do) Black history, American history and religious history differently. Laura comes to her doctoral studies through more than fifteen years of community-based organizing against mass incarceration. Currently, she serves on the boards of Women With A Vision (New Orleans), Men & Women In Prison Ministries (Chicago) and Reconstruction (Philadelphia). Her writings have been published in Beyond Walls and Cages: Bridging Immigrant Justice and Anti-Prison Organizing in the United States (2012), the International Journal for Law and Psychiatry (2011), Islam and AIDS: Between Scorn, Pity and Justice (2009), and a variety of community publications.

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