The Mind of Black Lives Matter

Peter C. Myers

Summer 2017

Black Lives Matter began in 2013 as a protest hashtag on Twitter after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. After a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer shot and killed Michael Brown in August 2014, the energy that had gathered through social media surged into the streets. In Ferguson, protests verging on riots extended over several days, and a litany of comparable incidents subsequently occasioned hundreds more protests in cities across the United States. The provocative hashtag thus became a full-fledged protest movement. BLM now boasts dozens of local chapters and a still-larger network of affiliated organizations, and the movement is well funded by lavish donations from major benefactors on the progressive left. Its activism continues, though a period of relative quiet in recent months makes this an opportune moment to take a larger view of BLM's meaning and aspirations.

Its primary motivation, according to the original Black Lives Matter website, is the "extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes." As to how best to address the problem, different approaches appear among the movement's various affiliated groups. The predominant approach, however, is to entangle the cause of justice for victims of police violence in an expansive web of far more radical objectives. That approach appears on the movement's main websites: the original BLM website and the website of the Movement for Black Lives, BLM's main umbrella organization. According to the latter, BLM's leaders "seek not reform but transformation"; they envision "a fundamentally different world," a world emerging in the wake of "a complete transformation of the current systems." BLM, as represented there and elsewhere, is a veritable symphony of revolutionary rhetoric.

That rhetoric is meant to locate the movement in a glorious African-American tradition of righteous protest. BLM's leaders and its media sympathizers prominently invoke the example of the 1960s Civil Rights movement, and the example is apt — but not in the way they suppose.

Like BLM itself, the Civil Rights movement was neither organizationally nor ideologically unified. Leading the movement in its earlier, successful phase, Martin Luther King, Jr., readily deployed the rhetoric of revolution, but he did so in a relatively confined and moderate sense. The change he then envisioned would effect a sharp break from longstanding practice, but he made clear that his objective, at the level of principle, was in the nature of a return. He labored to effectuate, as he memorably put it, "a dream deeply rooted in the American dream" — in the principles informing America's original revolution. After the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted, however, King along with others charted a more radical and much less successful course, so that, as the revolutionary rhetoric escalated and the revolutionary vision expanded, the movement fractured internally and ended in spasms of self-destructive, aimless violence.

The pertinent lesson of the Civil Rights movement is thus a lesson, to borrow the title of Bernard Yack's 1986 book, about the dangers inherent in a longing for total revolution. Epitomizing the career of the modern political philosophy Yack described, the 20th-century Civil Rights uprising in America changed from a constructive to a destructive force as it surrendered itself to that longing, changing its aspiration from a limited, liberal revolution to an all-encompassing transformation of the country's social and political order. Such a longing can end only in frustration. To set one's heart on a revolution so profound as to defy any reasonable possibility of its achievement must yield, in the end, an attitude of permanent alienation, of negation without affirmation or destruction without construction — which is to say, an attitude of nihilism.

Today's BLM movement plainly runs the risk of giving in to the same radical longing. BLM does not possess the wherewithal to achieve the grand revolution its more radical leaders envision, but it manifestly does have the wherewithal to make America significantly less peaceful and safe, less unified and free, and altogether less governable than it has been since the late 1960s. Regrettably, that is the path its radical leaders appear to have chosen. The shame is all the greater, given the presence of an opportunity for genuine reform.


Any constructive conversation about the present controversy over police misconduct toward blacks must begin with a twofold recognition: first, that there is a long and sordid history in America of such misconduct, and, second, that the acknowledgment of that history should inform, but must not determine, our assessment of more recent evidence. The pertinent evidence does not support BLM's most incendiary accusations, but it arguably does support lesser allegations of serious race-related misconduct.

In a thorough recent study, Harvard economist Roland Fryer examined racial differences in the use of force by police officers. He found no evidence of racial bias in the use of deadly force by police, but he did find that significant disparities appear in non-lethal encounters of blacks with police officers — the great majority of interactions. In a July 2016 speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate, South Carolina senator Tim Scott (a conservative and the Senate's lone black Republican) provided personal corroboration of Fryer's finding, as he recounted numerous incidents in which he, during his term as a U.S. senator, had been subjected to traffic stops for manifestly trivial reasons. Scott further reported, "I do not know many African-American men who do not have a very similar story to tell, no matter their profession, no matter their income, no matter their disposition in life."

As a general matter, it is surely true that relations between law-enforcement officers and black Americans are in need of improvement, and it is at least arguable that the number of police killings of suspects or arrestees of any color in America is excessive. Herein lies BLM's opportunity to contribute constructively toward reform, and some of its leaders are well-positioned to do so. Baltimore-based activist DeRay Mckesson, probably the single most prominent representative of the BLM movement, is the founder of an organization called "We the Protesters," whose website cites the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution as sources for its principles. That organization's better-known political offshoot, "Campaign Zero," produced the BLM movement's first iteration of a policy platform.

For Mckesson's faction of BLM, the exclusive focus is the incidence of police killings of civilians — of whatever color or ethnic identification — which, it points out, is much higher in the United States than in other developed nations. To the end of dramatically reducing these killings, it proposes a 10-point "Solutions" program, including calls for an end to "broken-windows" and "stop-and-frisk" policing, diversity or anti-bias training for officers, enhanced civilian review boards, mandatory body cameras on officers, and independent prosecutors to investigate allegations of misconduct. Its proposals are uneven in quality, but as a class they merit serious consideration.

That more focused approach is not, however, representative of BLM as a whole. It may be telling that the Mckesson organizations have not officially affiliated themselves with M4BL, whose statements of grievances and objectives differ significantly from those of Campaign Zero. Mckesson clearly takes a more pragmatic approach than do other BLM leaders, although just how far he diverges from their radical vision remains unclear. However that may be, BLM's namesake group and the M4BL umbrella federation leave no doubt as to the depth and breadth of their own revolutionary vision. It is the theoretician-organizers of those groups in particular who constitute the radicalized vanguard of the movement.


On the seminal issue of police shootings, BLM's radicals emphasize the general fact, repeated by President Obama, that blacks are much more likely to be killed by police than are whites. A Washington Post analysis of police use of deadly force in 2015 supplies what BLM and its supporters take to be the primary empirical confirmation of their position, in the finding that "black men were seven times more likely than white men to die by police gunfire while unarmed." Critics, however, led by the Manhattan Institute's Heather MacDonald, cite the Fryer study and various others to contend that to take this fact in abstraction is to distort rather than to clarify the phenomena at issue.

It is initially puzzling that BLM's leaders devote little effort to shoring up their empirical case against critics' arguments. Their main response instead is to broaden and deepen their indictment of America in general, to the end of exposing an extensive system of grievances that feed the primary one. "[W]e are broadening the conversation around state violence," the BLM group website explains, "to include all of the ways in which Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state."

As alleged by the movement's radical factions, the ways and means of anti-black state violence are profound and multitudinous. According to the M4BL "About Us" page:

State violence takes many forms — it includes the systemic underinvestment in our communities, the caging of our people, predatory state and corporate practices targeting our neighborhoods, government policies that result in the poisoning of our water and the theft of our land, failing schools that criminalize rather than educate our children, economic practices that extract our labor, and wars on our Trans and Queer family that deny them their humanity.

Likewise, the BLM website features allegations of actual "genocide," along with "Black poverty," "2.8 million Black people [being] locked in cages," and a "relentless assault on our children and our families." M4BL charges that "our nation's justice and education systems" collaborate in the operation of a "school-to-prison pipeline" whereby black children, disproportionate victims of excessive and arbitrary disciplinary policies, are "push[ed] out of the school system and funnel[ed] into jails and prisons."

This determination by BLM's radicals to broaden and deepen the indictment to comprehend the entire American social and political order bears a close relation, by implication if not by design, to their failure to make a more empirically careful argument to support their primary charge of police abuse of black citizens. Critics' case against the murderous-police charge depends crucially upon the disproportionately high percentages of violent crimes that are committed by black perpetrators. Given that high percentage, the critics argue, the disparity concerning police killings of black men relative to white men signifies in itself no true disproportion and no indication of racial injustice. BLM does not evade this criticism but instead rebuts it in its own way by radicalizing its indictment of America at large.

That indictment implies that the disproportionate number of crimes committed by blacks does not exonerate or excuse America's law enforcers, because that disproportion is a natural, inevitable effect of chronic, endemic anti-black injustice perpetrated by the American social, political, and legal order as a whole. In light of BLM's radicalized critique of America, the rejoinder based on crime rates is exposed as a particularly egregious species of victim-blaming: America as a comprehensive system of racism produces black criminals and then executes them for their criminality.

Thus the radicalized, totalized indictment of America is not merely ancillary but integral to the BLM radicals' argument. Accordingly, the rhetoric issued by BLM's radical factions is absolutely, uncompromisingly condemnatory. The BLM website declares that black Americans live and work in the face of "deadly oppression" proceeding from "the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society." The M4BL website decries the "systemic human rights violations inflicted on black communities" and the "killing, dehumanization, and torture of our people." BLM founder Alicia Garza writes in her "Herstory" essay that black lives "are uniquely, systematically, and savagely targeted by the state."

In short, according to BLM's radical factions, America is a murderous despotism. By the criteria presented in the Declaration of Independence, indeed by any conceivable standard of decent government, the American legal, political, and social order in relation to blacks is radically illegitimate; the polity can make no just claim on them, neither on their allegiance nor on their obedience. From such a perspective, the call for revolution in the most comprehensive sense naturally follows.


Reflecting on the fevered revolutionary enthusiasm evident in the BLM radicals' hyperbolic depictions of America, one labors to sound a note of sympathetic understanding. There can be no doubt that blacks' history in America prior to the Civil Rights era easily surpasses the threshold criterion for radicalized opposition ("a long train of abuses") set out in the Declaration of Independence. Given the magnitude of the injustice, the inclination among blacks to interpret current encounters with law-enforcement officers through the lens of that experience must be naturally very powerful. Further inducements to revolutionary zeal, however, are not particular to the experiences of black Americans.

An autobiographical remark by Frederick Douglass provides affecting testimony of one such inducement. Remembering his conflicted sentiments in 1865 as he looked ahead to the post-slavery era, Douglass confessed,

When the war for the Union was substantially ended, and peace had dawned upon the land...when the gigantic system of American slavery...was finally abolished and forever prohibited by the organic law of the land; a strange and, perhaps, perverse feeling came over me. My great and exceeding joy over these stupendous achievements, especially over the abolition of slavery (which had been the deepest desire and the great labor of my life), was slightly tinged with a feeling of sadness. I felt I had reached the end of the noblest and best part of my life; my school was broken up, my church disbanded, and the beloved congregation dispersed, never to come together again....A man in the situation I found myself, has not only to divest himself of the old, which is never easily done, but to adjust himself to the new, which is still more difficult.

The idea of revolution holds a powerful allure. Surely it is, as Douglass confessed, an ennobling, soul-enlarging experience to join, still more to lead, a righteous cause against a tyrannical power. The conscience, one might say, is an appetitive as well as a moral faculty, hungry for the experience or sense of one's own righteousness. So far as human beings are naturally moral animals, the promise of the sort of gratification Douglass recalled must serve as a powerful inducement to initiate, or to extend or renew, a successful revolution — for even the most successful revolution is never perfectly so. Inevitably, too, it must serve as a powerful inducement to err in the mode of Don Quixote: to magnify particular offenses, remediable by particular measures, into grand, comprehensive injustices, the better to instill a sense of heroic righteousness in those who rise to oppose them.

Often accompanying and reinforcing this internally generated inducement is an external one, in the form of the glorious reputation available to those who tear down an established, unjust order and establish a new, just order in its place. A ready illustration of both forms of inducement appears in the person of King, who denied that he sought glory or recognition and yet now holds in the public mind a stature comparable to those of the republic's original founders and of its 19th-century savior, Lincoln. The movement he led is now commonly remembered, just as King characterized it, as 20th-century America's glorious revolution.

As Douglass's confession implies, so glorious and soul-enlarging an enterprise poses a peculiar challenge to those who follow in its wake. Spurred by their own ruling passion, the ambitious members of the generations following a successful revolution must feel a powerful reluctance to conclude that, as Lincoln expressed it, "the game is caught" — that injustice is already conquered, a just order is already founded, and the glory that rewards those achievements belongs to others. Arduous and important work must always remain, but when that work involves no more than incrementally improving an order established by others, it can never carry the luster of righteous opposition or radical innovation.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the Civil Rights movement has inspired a wide and growing variety of would-be successors and emulators in the post-Civil Rights era, including most recently the BLM movement. All the more imperative are the dictates of moderation and prudence. The admonition of Alexis de Tocqueville, a man intimately familiar with the propensity of revolutionary zeal to issue in destructive excess, is directly pertinent:

One ought not to forget...that the same effort that makes a man violently take leave of a common error almost always carries him beyond reason; that to dare to declare a war, even a legitimate one, on the ideas of one's century and one's country, one must have a certain violent and adventurous disposition of spirit....And it is this, one may say in passing, that explains why so few moderate and honest revolutionaries are encountered in the most necessary and holy revolutions.

Performing no careful assessment of the need for revolutionary activism, BLM's more radical voices fail to attend to the dangers inherent in their revolutionary rhetoric. In this failure, as MacDonald and Juan Williams among other critics have warned, those leaders and their supporters are playing with fire. They are endangering some American citizens, both in body and in soul, and they are further fraying the moral and political fabric of the country as a whole.


The dangers to body are dangers to personal safety. Here the most serious charge is that BLM radicals' rhetoric signifies an incitement to violence against police officers, with deadly real-world consequences. A New York Times report in November 2015 acknowledged, "At some protests...marchers' chants have called for violence against police officers." (The author declined to report what protesters in St. Paul actually chanted: "Pigs in a blanket, fry ‘em like bacon.") Protests in several cities have ended in violence, including sporadic, lower-level aggressions against officers, but the most alarming development has been a series of killings of police officers, including the assassinations in July 2016 of five Dallas officers by a sniper who had stated he was "upset about Black Lives Matter."

BLM leaders have been quick to denounce the violence and to disavow any connection between it and their movement. In the aftermath of the Dallas killings, Garza declared, "Black Lives Matter has never, ever called for the murder of police officers." After the killings of three Baton Rouge officers just 10 days later, Mckesson commented simply, "The movement began as a call to end violence. That call remains....My prayers are with the victims of all violence."

Responding to the incitement charge, BLM leaders and their supporters in the media have insisted that BLM is an anti-violence movement, not an anti-police (or an anti-white) movement. (Garza stated in the same post-Dallas interview, "We are not anti-police.") Actions by a small number of unstable individuals, they contend, yield no rational basis for adverse generalizations about the movement as a whole.

It is a cogent and compelling response — to a point. BLM leaders' professions of nonviolence are no doubt sincere and heartfelt, and there is no inconsistency in saying that our social and political order is illegitimate but rightful endeavors to alter it must adhere to a moral discipline of nonviolence. That, of course, was the position of King and the mainstream leadership of the Civil Rights movement. The position of the BLM radicals is far more deeply equivocal.

Mindful of the magnitude of the anger their movement's constituents had long repressed, King and his colleagues took great care to govern that anger as they prepared their anti-segregation protests. That meant not only signing a card pledging commitment to the goals of justice and reconciliation, but also undergoing rigorous training in the discipline of nonviolence. Describing the process in his 1963 book, Why We Can't Wait, King says, "We made it clear that we would not send anyone out to demonstrate who had not convinced himself and us that he could accept and endure violence without retaliating....Not all who volunteered could pass our strict tests for service as demonstrators."

No comparable effort is evident in the BLM protests. To the contrary, when BLM leaders claim "our lives...are uniquely, systematically, and savagely targeted by the state," they characterize the state, as noted above, as a murderous despotism whose front-line agents, law-enforcement officers, function as an alien occupying force making war on their communities. They do so without any acknowledgment, in the spirit of King's appeals, of the presence of a moral conscience in the officers or of the possibility of those officers' moral redemption.

In characterizing America's ruling order in this manner, BLM leaders leave no reason to believe in the efficacy — or indeed the morality — of nonviolent, law-abiding protest as a means of reforming it. From their rhetoric, it is reasonable to infer that nonviolent, lawful opposition to such an enemy is at best feckless and at worst suicidal. Can one tenably maintain that BLM radicals' rhetoric is mindfully tailored to assist their appeals for nonviolence or to render BLM protesters' anger more governable?

The point of raising the question is not to indict BLM's radicals for the murders of police officers or even for incitement to those murders. Constitutional protections of speech, especially of political-protest speech, are properly strong. Those protections, however, do not insulate the movement's radical factions from charges of dangerous recklessness and irresponsibility in their rhetoric.

It is, of course, not only or primarily the police who are endangered. BLM's radicalism threatens the safety of black Americans as well. Critics have drawn widespread attention to the "Ferguson effect," whereby police are intimidated or otherwise obstructed from performing their duties in predominantly black neighborhoods. Given the higher rates of violent crime prevalent in many of those communities, any debilitation of policing can only leave many black citizens at greater risk of falling prey to — and dying at the hands of — violent criminals in their own neighborhoods.

No less profound are the dangers to Americans' souls, primarily the souls of black Americans. From the perspective of BLM's radicals, America, if not the entire world, is divided in Manichaean terms, defined by antinomies of black goodness and institutionalized American evil, black innocence and systemic American guilt. The deepest problem with this perspective is that, though the motive may be to affirm blacks' full humanity, the effect is the opposite. The effect is to dehumanize black people, to represent them as stripped of their human complexity.

This inadvertent dehumanizing of those to whom one means to attract sympathy is not a new phenomenon. As James Baldwin astutely observed, the protagonist in Richard Wright's 1940 book Native Son, Bigger Thomas, is robbed of his humanity in that his life is rendered as nothing more than the sum of generations of oppression. In this strange way, Baldwin noted, Bigger is a literary descendant of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom, similarly dehumanized via the sentimentalized representation of his pure innocence. King spoke in a spirit similar to Baldwin's when he urged blacks to cultivate their capacity for self-criticism even as they struggled against injustice. That spirit of self-awareness, of self-criticism enabled by self-respect, appears altogether lacking in the theory and practice of BLM.

The practical corollary of BLM's Manichaean outlook is a radical depreciation of blacks' capacity for agency or responsibility — the core, according to the classical liberal philosophy that informs the Declaration, of our personhood and our identity as rights-bearing beings. One searches in vain amid the programmatic statements of BLM and M4BL for any acknowledgment of blacks' achievements and successes in America, or for any indication that blacks' agency could reasonably find any expression other than protest. As presented by BLM's radical factions, black Americans appear as an undifferentiated, universally victimized mass.

The dominant message of the BLM radicals, then, is that racism is a fundamental, chronic, and pervasive feature of the American order, remediable only by a revolution so thoroughgoing as to make it a virtual impossibility. As one reads in M4BL's platform, "Until we are able to overturn US imperialism, capitalism and white supremacy, our brothers and sisters around the world will continue to live in chains."

The predictable practical effect of this radicalized longing is not focused, constructive change, but instead a diversion of hopes and energies into channels that are idle at best and self-destructive at worst. Frederick Douglass's warning about the psychologically debilitating effects of the recurring appeal emigration held for some 19th-century blacks retains its relevance: "We are perpetually kept, with wandering eyes and open mouths, looking out for some mighty revolution in our affairs here, which is to remove us from this country. The consequence is, that we do not take a firm hold upon the advantages and opportunities about us."

Douglass's warning comprehends more than a failure to make good on opportunities. For blacks to invest their hopes and energies wholly or mainly in a vision of radical deliverance, of "some mighty revolution" in their condition, would be to invest in a utopianism whose ultimate return would be a disillusioned conviction of the permanence of racial injustice in America. That sense of disillusionment or alienation might manifest itself in an ethos of perpetuated opposition for its own sake (as lately recommended by Ta-Nehisi Coates), or perhaps in one of passive resignation. Either way, it would signify a life defined and circumscribed by white supremacy. That, ironically, is the ultimate end of the path chosen by BLM's radicalized leadership.


Overarching all these dangers are the dangers to America at large, also conceivable as dangers to body and soul. In this case the main danger to body is also a danger to soul, appearing in the generalized form of a degradation of the commitment to procedural justice and the rule of law upon which Americans depend for their security of person, liberty, and property.

When a young Abraham Lincoln warned of a rising incidence of mob violence across America in 1838, his warning included the actions of mobs who believed they were acting pursuant to high moral purposes and were thus justified in disregarding the positive law. No matter the conviction or even the reality of righteous intention, Lincoln warned of a train of events in which eventually "the innocent...alike with the guilty, fall victims to the ravages of mob law; and thus it goes on, step by step, till all the walls erected for the defence of the persons and property of individuals, are trodden down, and disregarded." He continued:

[By] the operation of this mobocratic spirit, which all must admit, is now abroad in the land, the strongest bulwark of any Government, and particularly of those constituted like ours, may effectually be broken down and destroyed — I mean the attachment of the People. Whenever this effect shall be produced among us...depend on it, this Government cannot last.

One cannot say in 2017 what Lincoln intimated in 1838: that America is on a course of impending civil war. One certainly can say, however, that the country today, as in 1838, is in a moment of fragility in Americans' common commitment to the rule of law. Among the varied sources of that fragility are the arguments, rhetoric, and actions of BLM's radicals and their progenitors and sympathizers, and the danger they present reaches beyond particular violence to persons and property and beyond even our common commitment to the rule of law. The ultimate danger to the soul of America consists in a challenge to the very idea that Americans do or could constitute a unitary community, capable of governance by a common set of laws.

The distinctive mission of America, Frederick Douglass affirmed, discernible in the coincidence of our founding principles and our historical and geographic circumstances, is to provide "the [most] perfect national illustration of the unity and dignity of the human family that the world has ever seen." In the familiar words of King, it is to become a community — a "beloved," universally inclusive community — whose members are judged not "by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

America's post-Civil War experiment in constituting a racially integrated polity securing equality under the law for all was, as Douglass conceded, "a new experiment." It reached beyond the vision of most of America's founders, whose skepticism concerning black-white integration in this country reflected their judgment that the burdens of history, in this instance, were too great for the principles of natural right to overcome. Yet in urging this new experiment, Douglass renewed the spirit that James Madison summoned against the Anti-Federalists skeptical of the possibility of integrating 13 disparate states. Hearken not, Douglass and King implored their fellow Americans, to the unnatural voice of racial disaffection and discord, but adhere instead to the new and nobler course charted by the principles of the Declaration. The fundamental difficulty with BLM's radical factions lies in their failure to adhere to that nobler course; instead, they propagate ideas that would set the country once again on a path of disintegration along racialized lines.

Some of BLM's specific demands might have a plausible circumstantial justification, to the extent that they could be judged necessary and proper instruments for repairing injustices or preventing otherwise unpreventable injustices. Yet, as they recount a litany of black victims of police killings to substantiate their indictment of American law enforcement, they fail to distinguish cases of genuine police impropriety or even criminality from cases in which police, by all available evidence, appear to have acted in justified self-defense.

Again the contrast with King's stated procedure is telling. The first, indispensable step in any protest campaign, King stipulates in his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," is "collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive." By refusing to wait for the pertinent evidence to emerge before protesting, BLM has conveyed an utter lack of interest in — perhaps a jaded distrust of — any such investigative effort. Such refusals suggest, once again, that for all those blacks who have died at the hands of law-enforcement officers, the mere fact of their blackness suffices to establish their innocence, any evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

BLM's radicals come close, in other words, to affirming a pure racial factionalism. Their factionalism cannot quite be purely racialized due to cases such as that of Keith Lamont Scott, in which a black suspect was killed by a black officer (who was in turn subject to the authority of a black police chief). In a sense, theirs is worse than a purely racialized vision. In view of their generalized condemnation of law-enforcement officers whether white or black, it seems that the lives that really matter to BLM's radicals are the lives of the minority of blacks who run afoul of the law. Those lives must matter foremost, because, if America is to be characterized as a regime of pervasive anti-black injustice, that relatively small minority must be viewed as the representative class of black Americans, exemplary of the condition of all blacks relative to America.

Such a vision constitutes a profound affront to law-abiding black citizens, as well as to law-enforcement officers of any color or ethnicity. The racialized antinomianism that BLM's radicals are laboring, carelessly or intentionally, to propagate is a vision that (in the words Douglass deployed against the antinomian radicalism of William Lloyd Garrison) yields no intelligible principle of action. It is a vision that reduces to an affirmation of protest or opposition for its own sake. As such, it hardly consists with the universalist, integrationist vision implicit in the Declaration and courageously affirmed by the leaders of the mainstream black protest tradition from which BLM leaders claim to be descended.


In a 1957 sermon entitled "Loving Your Enemies," King observed, "We're split up and divided against ourselves....there is something of a civil war going on within all of our lives." So it was with the Civil Rights movement in its final phase, and so it is with BLM, whose radical leaders at times speak King's language of love, peace, and community, even as they adopt and extend a vision and program of the likes of Stokely Carmichael and Huey Newton. They seem to think they need not choose between those two models, that the Civil Rights movement of 1963 and the Black Power or Black Liberation movements of 1967-68 are of a piece, a unified model of opposition whose legacy they mean to carry forward. That thought is profoundly mistaken.

If BLM means to be a bearer of hope and an agent of progress, it must advance a program of incremental, precisely tailored reforms, elements of which already appear in the details of its platform statement. It must do so, moreover, by addressing the American political mainstream in language and through principles congenial to it. If it fails to do those things — if it remains enthralled by its visions of radical opposition and comprehensive revolution — then it will suffer the same fate that befell its late-1960s forebears.

In the most radical phase of his own career, and following an extended, sympathetic account of the motivations and virtues of Black Power advocates, King nonetheless condemned their vision and program as "a nihilistic philosophy born out of the conviction that the Negro can't win." The "ultimate contradiction of the Black Power movement," he added, is that "[i]t claims to be the most revolutionary wing of the social revolution taking place in the United States" and yet "it rejects the one thing that keeps the fire of revolutions burning: the ever-present flame of hope."

Here is the profound irony of BLM's radical leadership. Carrying the revolutionary spirit to excess, they characterize the forces they oppose as utterly and ruthlessly malevolent. They express in one voice a desire for reconciliation and community that in another voice they implicitly characterize as impossible and absurd. They imagine a situation so dire that it calls for a revolution so extreme as to overthrow the very regime whose principles they claim to honor.

Of this vision one certainly cannot say what King said of his own, that it is "a dream deeply rooted in the American dream." Judged by the light of the Declaration that all great American reformers have invoked, the radical theoreticians of BLM are not revolutionaries in any proper sense. In the actions they license and in the ultimate reach of their principles, they are nihilists.

Peter C. Myers is a visiting fellow in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation and professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He is the author of Frederick Douglass: Race and the Rebirth of American Liberalism


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