“I wanted to understand the world in order to change the world.”
This was one striking quote from Professor Barbara Ransby’s lecture “Social Justice and Freedom-making in the 21st Century: Lessons from Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker and the Black Lives Matter Movement,” which took place on Sept. 13 in the Villard Room. Ransby, an award-winning author, activist, historian and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was warmly welcomed to campus as part of Vassar’s Social Justice in Question initiative.
Professor of Religion Jonathon S. Kahn opened the lecture, explaining, “Social Justice in Question grew out of this set of faculty and student needs and concerns as to how we can highlight the notion and question of social justice.” Kahn explained the two parts of the initiative: First, there are 12 first-year writing seminars that are offered this year that are focused on questions of social justice. Second, Vassar will host a six-part lecture series in order to bring different viewpoints and expertise to facilitate the campus-wide conversation.
Professor of History Quincy Mills highlighted how Ransby’s visit was germane to the matters at hand in the initiative, stating, “There is no better person, I would argue, to kick off this lecture series than Professor Ransby.”
Ransby opened by informing the audience not only of her academic background but also of how she sees herself as both a scholar and an activist: “I have appreciated being in Chicago and being immersed in a very diverse, passionate and unrelenting activist community.” These experiences play a role in her stated belief that “we cannot discuss social justice without discussing racial injustice.” Ransby’s lecture focused on three figures and organizations in the Black Freedom Movement: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker and the Movement for Black Lives and Black Lives Matter.
Ransby asserted that Martin Luther King Jr. is “known widely, but not very deeply.” She elaborated on common misperceptions, “There are three distortions that persist about Dr. King: One, that he did it all alone; two, we pretend that it was all about integration; and three, we pretend that he was only concerned about Black people in the U.S.”
King is closely tied to many of the Black Freedom movements in the United States today. Ransby illuminated how, in 2016, around the MLK holiday, organizers of the Movement for Black Lives movements use hashtags #reclaimtheradicalking and #reclaimMLK. Illustrating King’s ability to work alongside people from all walks of life, Ransby described his participation in the Black sanitation worker strike during Spring 1968 to protest for safer working conditions after two Black men were crushed to death due to a malfunctioning sanitation truck. “King chose to be with some of the most marginal people in society,” Ransby stated. “He could have made a choice to surround himself with people of great stature and privilege, but he went in the opposite direction. This is where many activists today take great inspiration.”
Ransby went on to discuss Ella Baker, one of the most prominent female civil and human rights activists. She emphasized how Baker worked to lift up the most marginalized voices during her career, which lasted for more than five decades. She was an avid member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Baker promoted grassroots leadership, especially during her time at the SNCC. Ransby explained that Baker believed that “strong people do not need strong leaders” and that “no one will save us except ourselves.” Ransby emphasized,“No one was left out of Ella Baker’s vision of freedom.”
Bridging the past and the present, Ransby emphasized the importance in recognizing the differences between then and now, but also the similarities. She specified, “Some of the things that are different during this period is the presence of social media, of radical feminist leadership, of LGBTQ, Trans and Queer leadership and the incorporation of new, creative and sometimes very militant tactics.”
As is true of Martin Luther King Jr. and Ella King, widespread misconceptions persist about the Black Lives Matter Movement, which Ransby distinguishes from the Movement for Black Lives. According to Ransby, the Movement for Black Lives is a rubric and a coalition that is largely defined by action and advocates transformative change. The 50 or so organizations forming this coalition have been collaborating for around five years.
The Black Lives Matter Movement began on social media with a hashtag. However, according to Ransby, following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, in 2014, “[T]he widely televised and tweeted uprising about his death that Black Lives Matter migrated from the virtual world of social media to the real politics of the street.” More groups around the country formed in response to the violence toward Black people. Ransby praised their efforts, stating, “Without people who are facilitating something other than just organization building, movement building and connecting different sectors, then the reach of individual organizations would be much more limited.”
To conclude her lecture, Ransby highlighted central characteristics of the Movement for Black Lives that embrace the philosophies of both King and Baker. One such component is a specific style of leadership, characterized by its decentralized and grassroots nature. She also highlighted how the movement strives to create a society in which police are superfluous and prisons are obsolete.
Ransby prompted the audience to take away lessons from the visionary leaders of the Black Freedom Movement from the past and present: MLK Jr., Ella Baker and the organizers of the Movement for Black Lives and Black Lives Matter. She proposed, “It is important that we not only listen to voices from the past and voices from the platform that social movements create, but we have to find our own moral compass, our own moral voices, and use those voices to speak truth to power.”