#BlackLivesMatter as a Secular Black Political Theology: Ethical and Practical Implications of the first New Black Social Movement of the 21st Century

Kenneth D. Johnson is affiliated with the William J. Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies, in Boston. The following paper was presented at the 2016 Telos Conference, held on January 16–17, 2016, in New York City. For news about upcoming conferences and events, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

Introduction

The spate of killings of unarmed African American males by police and vigilante residents has continued to roil public opinion in the black community, leading to various forms of social protest, in particular by varied groups of young adult African Americans.

Preeminent among these groups is #BlackLivesMatter, which now aspires to become a national movement, sometimes in coalition with other contemporary groups formed near the same time, and displacing older Civil Rights groups and the Black Church’s ethical and protest traditions.

While #BlackLivesMatter has partly instrumentalized Black Church social protest tradition, it has done so in the service of a fundamentally secular set of ethical commitments. In the process, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has discarded the internal resources of self-critique that Black Church ethical praxis provides.

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Legitimation Crisis in the ‘Hood: Will 2015 be like 1968?

The recent protests of the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City, both black males, at the hands of police, ignited what some believe to be a new movement in the vein of the historic black Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Little did Messrs. Brown and Garner know that their tragic deaths would breathe new life into a near-dead progressive Left.

New groupings of Gen Xers and Millennials, networking through the Internet, have now displaced older activist groups led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton. Other groups, like organized labor (especially SEIU), and perennial malcontents of Marxian legacy, such as the ANSWER coalition and the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, have appeared in protests, alongside shadowy cadres of white anarchists, who in some cities have thrown firebombs and damaged property during protest actions. Unlike Occupy Wall Street and its derivatives, the new protest groups have an identifiable leadership, appear regularly in news media, and are building the road as they travel, that is, working out tactics and strategies based on their reading (or misreading) of past protest movements, as they go.

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