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farah stockman

The new face of civil rights

Marissa Johnson (left) spoke as Mara Jacqueline Will held her fist overhead as the two women took over the microphone at an August rally in Seattle for Senator Bernie Sanders (right).AP

In the 1960s, the black students who integrated lunch counters in the South wore suits and ties. White people pelted them with eggs, and the world saw who was civilized and who was not.

Civil rights activists back then were churchgoers who wielded respectability as their most potent weapon. The NAACP picked plaintiffs carefully, choosing only those with upstanding personal lives that could withstand harsh scrutiny.

But respectability has fallen out of fashion. The activists of today don’t mind the optics of storming the stage at a Bernie Sanders rally. They champion Michael Brown, who robbed a store before he was shot, just as vehemently as they do 12-year old Tamir Rice. Instead of mirroring the mainstream, they speak for the most marginalized: transgender people, the incarcerated, the undocumented. They bristle at suggestions that teenagers pull up their pants. Black lives matter, well-dressed or not.


They’re understandably tired of being told that black people are the root of black people’s problems, rather than an economic and social system that exploited and excluded them for centuries.

“Respectability politics,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, is just “the inability to look into the cold dark void of history.”

Respectability has become such a dirty word that Randall Kennedy felt compelled to defend it in this month’s Harper’s Magazine. But few have been more dismayed by respectability’s sinking stock than Harvard Professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, who coined the term “politics of respectability” in her 1993 book “Righteous Discontent.” It tells the story of black women – mostly maids – in the late 1800s and early 1900s who fought racism and sexism with boycotts and church campaigns that also emphasized cleanliness, industriousness, and moral fiber.

“There is a dignity in what an earlier generation fought for,” Higginbotham said. “I don’t think that was such a bad thing, to emphasize integrity and character.”

Last week, Higginbotham went to hear Alicia Garza, cofounder of Black Lives Matter, speak and receive an award at Harvard. Higginbotham wasn’t sure what to expect, but she came away feeling profoundly hopeful and moved.


Garza doesn’t carry herself like someone who’s thrown respectability politics out the window. She’s soft-spoken. She listens. She radiates love.

Even when she tells you some awful truth, like “black bodies were the first currency of this nation,” it sounds like poetry.

She’s not a bully, as Ben Carson claimed. She doesn’t call for the murder of police officers, as Chris Christie and Ted Cruz falsely charged.

But she does have an uncompromising worldview: that black people don’t need to change. It’s society that needs to change.

“There is nothing wrong with black people,” she said.

She concluded this the day George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing 17-year-old Travyon Martin. Trayvon’s mother graduated college and worked 24 years for Miami-Dade County. But none of that respectability saved her son, or brought justice after his death.

“It felt necessary to make an intervention to say ‘Our lives do matter,’” Garza said from the podium. She wrote a message on Facebook — a love note, she called it — to reaffirm the inherent humanity of black lives. People hungry for that message turned her three words into a movement.

Maybe Garza, who works for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, isn’t so different than the activist-maids Higginbotham wrote about. Maybe every generation has its own brand of righteous discontent, expressed in ways that shock the elders. Even the students who sat at the “white” Woolworth lunch counter in their suits were scolded by a black waitress who told them they were “making the race look bad.” Luckily, they didn’t listen.


Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @fstockman.