The fight for civil rights will always be a global issue, so recently dean and graduate of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff recently traveled to share their thoughts in a presentation. Read about the presentation, called “Catalytic Moments in Movement Building: The Role of Women and Youth Activists in the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter Movements,” in the article by Will Hehemann below.
This year, the Office of International Programs (OIPS) at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff continued to offer educational programming to governmental and higher education institutions in Japan, said Pamela Moore, associate dean for global engagement at UAPB.
She and a recent UAPB graduate participated in an event hosted by the U.S. Embassy at Tokyo, presenting on topics including the civil rights and Black Lives Matter movements and women and youth activism.
During the virtual event, Moore and Tim Campbell, a 2015 UAPB alumnus, gave a presentation titled “Catalytic Moments in Movement Building: The Role of Women and Youth Activists in the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter Movements.” The event was attended by an audience of over 200 Japanese citizens, including students, academics, journalists, representatives of non-governmental agencies and government officials.
Kelsey De Rinaldis, assistant cultural affairs officer for the embassy, said the U.S. Mission in Japan aims to provide its Japanese audiences with authoritative, complete and unbiased information on the U.S. When planning cultural programming, cultural affairs personnel select diverse experts from across the U.S. who can provide the nuanced context necessary to understand current events in America.
“Through our events, we are able to showcase American values like diversity and inclusion, as well as explain U.S. policy,” De Rinaldis said. “We are also telling the American story in a way our audiences may not have heard. This story, personalized by our experts, enables our audiences to relate to the subject and internalize the lessons shared. This unites us over similarities and fosters conversations about how we can collectively benefit from this shared story, culture and history.”
The Black Lives Matter movement has gained attention in Japan in recent years, where it has organized protests and founded several chapters.
While there is quite a bit of information in the media about the Black Lives Matter and civil-rights movements in Japan, not all of it is authoritative, complete and unbiased. It is therefore important for Japanese audiences to listen to American experts discussing the situation in the United States, especially those that can speak first-hand to what they have experienced like Moore and Campbell.
During the presentation, Moore stressed the personal nature of African American social movements.
“We are talking about a history that has personally defined us and our communities,” she said. “The presentation focused on the concepts of movements and movement building in the context of the struggle for human, social and economic equality throughout African American history in the U.S.”
Campbell spoke about the history of student activism in Little Rock and also addressed movement building in the contemporary context. During his presentation, he detailed how the Black Lives Matter movement started as a simple hashtag and transformed over time into a rallying cry against police brutality towards the African American community.
The movement continued to evolve further, encompassing different groups with different objectives. Today, the official Black Lives Matter organization is decentralized with chapters spread out across the country that focus on social justice issues at the local level.
Campbell, who recently earned a master’s degree at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, spoke about his own experience in movement building. He helped organize protests and marches for justice and equality that took place in Little Rock in June 2020 following the killing of George Floyd and other African Americans during encounters with police.
“I reached out to local allies with community service initiatives who I knew had great platforms,” he said. “After getting in touch with them, we organized three rallies at the state capitol. The rallies stayed safe, and no one was hurt or injured. They provided a healthy space for people who were experiencing hurt and anguish to express themselves.”
His efforts were quickly noticed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who appointed him to serve on the Task Force to Advance the State of Law Enforcement in Arkansas.
The group, which consisted of 20 community leaders, made recommendations to the governor on ways to enhance trust between law enforcement and communities, as well as improvements or changes needed to enhance the profession of law enforcement to ensure compliance with standards. Since it was founded, the task force has made 27 official recommendations to police policy.
“I was able to build a great relationship with Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who was very receptive to the issues and the deep emotions felt at the time,” Campbell said.
Campbell also spoke about how the Black Lives Matter movement ignited activism in Europe, Africa and other parts of the world.
He shared a personal anecdote about how the protests in Little Rock ended up inspiring activism in the West African nation of Gambia, where he had served in the Peace Corps for 2½ years. Over the course of the protests in Little Rock, Campbell would post updates, videos and calls to action on social media.
“A close friend in Gambia took notice of what I was posting and reached out to me,” Campbell said. “He asked many questions about what I was doing and why I was doing it, and I explained the issues that Black Americans were facing in relation to policing. My friend quickly felt a passion and an emergence of empathy for the things I was articulating.”
A few days later, Campbell was surprised and gratified when his colleague informed him that he had requested a permit from the U.S. Embassy in Gambia to organize a movement to support the Black Lives Matter cause.
“It wasn’t until three days later that I received a video that brought me nearly to tears,” he said. “I saw my counterparts in the streets of Gambia in front of the U.S. embassy supporting the Black Lives Matter cause and chanting the same chants I would post to my Facebook page.”
During her part of the presentation, Moore emphasized how the goals of particular social movements vary over time and between different communities. For instance, she gave examples of how the civil-rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s was expressed in different ways across the country by different organizations and their leaders.
“The civil-rights movement was quite diverse and decentralized,” she said. “We had nationally-prominent leaders – most of whom were men – who had such power and presence that there was a perception that, for example, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the leader of the movement, when in reality, he led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was based in Atlanta, Georgia. That organization did have influence, but it was not the only organization engaged during the civil-rights movement.”
Moore explained how organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee operated primarily in the south, emphasizing non-violent strategies and concentrating on voting rights, desegregation and equality and fairness under the law.
National organizations such as the NAACP, National Council of Negro Women, Urban League and Congress of Racial Equality organized and engaged in activism in the south and other parts of the country.
And some organizations, primarily on the coasts or in large urban areas, expressed the struggle for justice in more radical ways. These included the Nation of Islam, All-African People’s Revolutionary Party and the Black Panther Party.
“Most of the time, when it comes to social movements, there are no predetermined formulas that guarantee success,” she said. “Rather, catalytic moments tend to occur and have great effect. It’s important to understand that change may be slow. Sometimes an event can occur and spark reaction years down the road that leads to even greater impact.”
An example of this phenomenon was Fannie Lou Hamer’s iconic attendance at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Moore said. A civil-rights activist, Hamer helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the state’s all-white delegation at the convention.
At the time, the National Democratic Party only granted Hamer’s party two seats at the convention. Hamer then made the famous comment on national TV, “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats.”
“That moment may not have seemed so catalytic, but something great happened as result of Hamer’s challenge to the Democratic Party to allow African Americans to participate in party activities,” Moore said. “Although she did not win, the Democratic Party began to integrate its ranks. But for that historic moment at the 1964 convention, I really wonder if we would have had an African American president and vice president and a fearless leader like Stacey Abrams in Georgia.”
De Rinaldis said the UAPB-led program resonated with Japanese audiences, who were able to draw parallels between historical figures in their own history, namely women who played roles in social movements and those who fought for greater equality.
“It was especially relevant as the Black Lives Matter movement continues to gain popularity in Japan, demonstrating the global impact this American movement has had,” she said. “We challenge our Japanese audience to view the success of these American social movements as inspiration and to identify ways in which they can apply these shared lessons to the obstacles they currently face.”
Promoting racial equity and justice is a key priority within U.S. foreign policy, De Rinaldis said.
“What sets America apart is not that we are perfect,” she said. “It’s that we deal with our imperfections and challenges openly to move forward and defend our fundamental values. Systemic racism and injustice are prevalent in America, but they are not exclusive to America … By acknowledging that there is much work to be done by all to achieve equality, justice and inclusion, we are able to have honest conversations with each other and formulate solutions together. There is always much the United States and Japan can learn from each other, so it is paramount that we provide a platform for these conversations.”
Will Hehemann is a writer/editor with the UAPB School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences.