Before President Gerald Ford officially designated Black History Month in 1976, it was only a weeklong celebration. The evolution of this event from one week to an entire month started from moving the conversation of Black influence in America to looking deeper into the untold and nefarious history of African Americans.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is just another chapter in the multi-volume set that’s still being written on the Black experience in America. Like those who came before them, these reformers and their list of demands go beyond the fight to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system, the fight for equal opportunity and upending policing as we’ve known it for decades in America.
The message of Martin Luther King Jr. is embodied in the BLM movement today. Just as he was trying to get Americans to see the plight facing southern Blacks in his day, the youth spearheading BLM are also trying to open the eyes of often-complacent white folks so they can realize that Black people are still not truly free.
What BLM and MLK both understand is that in America, Black people remain neglected and vulnerable. People of color (POC) cannot walk down the street, go to the bathroom, ride their bikes, jog or even be in bed without the fear of police violence.
The widespread inequality Black Americans face is like modern segregation and reminiscent of slavery by another name in the years following the Civil WarDaniel Karny
The movements of both Black Lives Matter and MLK have a historical parallel that is uncanny: the trope of the outside agitator.
The ‘outside agitator’ trope was used broadly during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and coincides today with BLM protests as peaceful marchers are beaten and killed.
BLM protesters were heartbroken and then enlivened to demand justice after the alleged murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, just as MLK and his supporters in Birmingham were emboldened to take action from decades of laissez faire government race politics.
But what does it mean to be an outside agitator?
The term has a long history in American politics strongly rooted in racism. It began as a myth in the Jim Crow South that civil rights protesters did not understand Southern life and that people were satisfied with the way things were. Freedom riders were among the first to achieve the outside agitator status because they were bused across state lines.
Quickly, the myth developed ties to communism in the throes of the Cold War period and became more conspiratorial in nature. Today, that conspiracy is full fledged as BLM protesters are equated with the violence at the Capitol riot on Jan. 6.
Black identity and the “American Dilemma” has in many ways resurfaced today. Black activists in the 1950s and 60s used the example of Black GIs re-educating citizens in post-Nazi Germany to call out segregationists supporting Jim Crow back home.
The dilemma: How is it that Black soldiers could teach Europeans that Jews are humans and there is no master race when back home whites consistently delegitimized equality and legitimized Black inferiority? This argument seems to epitomize itself at the heart of the BLM movement because some people still disagree that black lives matter.
African Americans never really assimilated into society as housing, education, income, job, and healthcare disparities still plague Black communities in America today. The widespread inequality Black americans face is like modern segregation and reminiscent of slavery by another name in the years following the Civil War.
This slavery by another name was know as peonage, in which freed Blacks would be incarcerated by unjust pig laws which were used to jail Blacks for crimes such as walking on railroad tracks or vagrancy statutes that allowed Blacks to be jailed for simply not having a job. After being incarcerated, Blacks would be sold to both farmers and big corporations like U.S Steel to work in coal mines around the country.
One would think the work they did would take time off their sentences, but this was not the case. Up until the 1940s, Black prisoners worked hard labor in mines with no pay and no compensation.
Many people think of the early 20th century as an enlightenment-like period in America: The Wright brothers achieving flight in 1903; Henry Ford coming out with the Model A; and even influential Black citizens like W.E.B Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, or George Washington Carver making huge prints on the country’s history.
But while all of these amazing things and people were happening in America, thousands of Black Americans were being ushered into the convict leasing system and deprived of the freedoms they were promised but never received.
Even after the end of the Civil War in 1865, Black people were still outsiders in the South. But they would not be considered agitators until nearly 100 years later.
In 1963 MLK Jr. wrote his extolled work, Letter From a Birmingham Jail. In it he directly refuted claims made by eight Alabama clergymen who condemned his planned protests and called him and his supporters outside agitators. In a 20-page transcript, MLK discusses the use of this term three times.
“Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds,” MLK emphasized in his first reference.
MLK was not simply alluding to the naturalization clause of the 14th Amendment that says anyone born in the US is automatically considered a citizen; however, he was harkening back to America’s spirit of inclusion, that all men are created equal.
He raised the fundamental idealism of the country by invoking the same unilateralism of not just Thomas Jefferson but Abraham Lincoln. In his last public address in 1865, Lincoln stated how the Union army “brought the States from without, into the Union, or only gave them proper assistance, they never had been out of it.”
It must be understood from MLK’s comments that once you sign onto the American cause of freedom, in any scenario, you may never be expelled from it.
The BLM movement is exactly the spirit of radical social reform and freedom present in MLK’s rhetoric that preaches the advantages of a multicultural America.
The outside agitator theory is a myth in the American storyline that keeps us from recognizing one another as a part of the whole. Amidst the chaos of bombings and murders in the 1960s and burning buildings in 2020 by anarchists, MLK and BLM organizers understand how hate and racism blind us.
Today, pride in America is at one of its lowest points ever. MLK had never shied away from the troubling past of the nation, but he was able to find a silver lining where he knew one day America would realize its goals.
Taking MLK’s ideas a step further, BLM advocates incorporate the LGBTQ+ community and feminism into their agenda with a sense of collective liberation among minorities.
The outside agitator motif for centuries has come from the fear of an uncontrollable entity whose origin is foreign and therefore its goal is to invade. But when we begin to classify our own citizens as these enemies who wreak havoc on towns and cities, it incites more than political discord but works to castrate our democracy.
To put it more plainly, American history has hidden many of its dark memories while celebrating prosperity and justice. One of the reasons BLM protesters have been called outside agitators is because it is partly true.
Black America is always growing, and it is in these moments that their progress and force push the limits of unjust laws to their breaking point. As BLM continues the legacy of the Civil Rights movement, their presence is felt not just as outside agitators but as central elements in the fabric of democracy.
In the 2020 election, Black Americans brought about the highest voter registration among Black citizens ever in American history, showing their strength as a major influence in the country. BLM organizers collected and registered hundreds of thousands of Black voters in Georgia and around the country to bring about this massive accomplishment.
Our conversation then comes to a precipice, a point where we must ask what is to gain from understanding the outside agitator trope in history and what do we truly learn from MLK and BLM?
It’s more than simply claiming that America has a long way to go in terms of equality for Black Americans, and it’s also not just about the rocky road getting even rockier.
It’s about learning how the American experience is intertwined with struggle and has an even greater connection to building upon the past in a way that proves to the world time and time again that our country, our democracy, will always prevail.
Many countries around the world have leaders and people who reject change and fail to look inward for constructive and meaningful reform. America is not like that. As a country, we continue to openly and unashamedly face dichotomies like modern inequality that threaten to break us.
From the conversation about the outside agitator we gain insight, we understand boundaries, and we realize that the real enemy, as MLK and BLM show us, is when we accustom ourselves to believing in hateful rhetoric rather than that of strength in unity.
As a nation we must recognize ourselves as outsiders. A beacon of hope in the world and a refuge for freedom and liberty. And yes, agitators as well, for rejecting despotism, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did by condemning former President Trump for his involvement in the insurrection at the Capitol.
Black History Month gives us a chance to acknowledge our history both in its triumphs and failures. MLK tells us that sometimes we need outside agitators, like Jesus, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, to illuminate the truth of things. As the first U.S National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman said at Biden’s inaugural address, we are “a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished.”
MLK’s present legacy in BLM, embroiled in death and violence, is always remembered for what it strives for: an end to systemic racism, a call for equality, faith, empathy, love, and a hope for a better future.
In his letter from a Birmingham Jail MLK wrote, “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.”