On the day Michael Brown was shot, my daughter, Tammie Holland, and I were at a drive-in restaurant in Ferguson. While we were purchasing sodas, Tammie saw a post on social media stating that the police had just shot someone around the corner. I had the sense that something terrible had happened. I wanted to see, but Tammie was hesitant. I convinced her that we needed to witness what was causing hundreds of people to surround the area.
We walked quite a distance, past a roped off area, and stood blocks from the crime scene. We stood with Michael Brown’s mother, Lezley McSpadden, as hundreds of people continued to gather. Militarized police moved in with armored military trucks soon after. Hours later, the street was reopened and we were allowed to enter the crime scene area. We watched as Michael Brown’s blood was washed away from the streets.
The day of his death marked the first day of many when people, including myself, took to the streets to demand justice for his death. We kept coming back to protest. After a few weeks, I became involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. My friend gave my cell phone number to the Black Lives Matter organizers. They started sending me text messages with the details of the next actions - the movement uses the word action instead of protest.
Protesting, or taking part in an action, felt natural to me because I have never stood idly by when I see injustice. I will run toward a demonstration because that is how I was brought up. My mother was an activist. She would tell me, “Never forget whose you are, never forget where you came from, never forget those whose shoulders we stand upon, and never forget who paid the supreme price for our freedom.”
Growing up during the civil rights era, I had the chance to see both worlds—segregated and desegregated. I was raised in Detroit but spent summers with my relatives in Birmingham, Ala. I sat in the back of the bus prior to the bus boycotts. I learned what it felt like to go to the “colored” bathroom and drink from the “colored only” water fountain. However, I had to challenge the system. I was bold and defiant and drank from the “white only” fountain when I thought the water from the “colored only” fountain was too warm.
I believe some from the older generations who were a part of the civil rights era have forgotten their roots in civil disobedience. Instead of inviting young people to be a part of planning, they speak from podiums, give grand introductions, tout their lengthy titles and positions held. Many are resentful and critical of younger activists. They believe the news media’s portrayal of Black Lives Matter instead of getting to know who these young people are.
Black Lives Matter has received bad press because journalists attribute the bad behavior of outliers who have nothing to do with the movement to young activists who work within the Black Lives Matter movement. The news media has called them hoodlums and other denigrating names, but I believe they are far from that. The Black Lives Matter movement is an inclusive coalition of beautiful people who are young, educated, strategic thinkers, college professors, Black, White, Asian, Latino, and part of the LGBTQ community.
I want my generation to take my approach and be an ally. Step back and let the youth lead. I understand if some of us are not able to get involved at the street level, but there are other ways we can be involved in seeking justice with our young people. We can be in conversation with one another and we can invite members of Black Lives Matter to speak to us at our churches. We can gather in small focus groups and talk about the social justice issues most pressing to us, young and old.
These conversations may be difficult, but we need to be patient with one another and remember that our young people want us to understand their experiences and hear their stories and ideas. They are tired of us ignoring them. I am too.
I can listen to our young people and support them with my activism. I can gently prod, as I did with my own daughter, to use the platform best suited for them as a tool for justice. If we all work together we can make lasting change happen, as we follow in the footsteps of the brave activists before us.