Black Lives Matter co-founder calls for a challenge to white supremacy

In an MLK Day event with journalist Yamiche Alcindor, activist Patrisse Cullors discussed America’s past and present, and where there is hope for the future.
Yamiche Alcindor (left) and Patrisse Cullors during a Jan. 27 Yale event commemorating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King

Yamiche Alcindor (left) and Patrisse Cullors during a Jan. 27 event commemorating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

The violent siege of the U.S. Capitol Building on Jan. 6 made clear that white supremacy is as alive and ingrained as ever, said Patrisse Cullors, Black Lives Matter co-founder, during a Jan. 27 Yale event commemorating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

This puts democracy itself at risk for all Americans, she said.

In a Zoom discussion with PBS NewsHour White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor, Cullors called on white “moderates” to take a stand against white supremacy by differentiating themselves from the angry mob that stormed the Capitol Building in the belief that the presidential election was stolen. The act was “emboldened” by former President Donald Trump over the past four years, the community organizer said. But it cannot be blamed on him alone.

This action on the Capitol comes from a long legacy of white supremacist mobs trying to upend or upending democracy,” said Cullors, noting that many of those who took part in the siege are mainstream Americans across all sectors of society who are not members of radical fringe groups.

The discussion was Yale’s first intercollegiate Martin Luther King Jr. commemorative event, co-sponsored by many campus offices and departments as well as by those at Southern Connecticut State University and Gateway Community College.

Addressing white members of her Zoom audience, who included members of the Yale community and listeners from around the world, Cullors asked: “What are you doing when another Black life is stolen? What are you doing when children just watched another viral video of a young woman being slammed unconscious [by a police officer at her high school in Kissimmee, Florida] … What are you doing when children in your schools are being attacked and harassed by police?

There has to be more we do, and there has to be more that the white moderate does, because what we know is that the current system at hand is a system that will atrophy unless we challenge it.”

Reflecting on how Martin Luther King Jr. famously decried the “silence of good people” about the cause of justice, and how he was urged by those in power to be more patient and less controversial in his pursuit of civil rights and equality for Blacks, Alcindor asked Cullors to comment about her own experience as a community organizer and activist. Cullors recalled how in her early days of activism, a Democratic board at a city council meeting in Santa Monica, California, told her that she was being too aggressive in her demands and should “wait for the process to work.”

The reality is, we know that time and time and time again, waiting doesn’t actually get us anywhere,” she said. “It’s when we push and challenge the process [that change happens].”

Cullors, who has been hailed by Time magazine and as one of the most influential women in America for co-founding the Black Lives Matter movement and leading its growth as a global organization, said that the new administration of President Joseph Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris must be urged to put forward an agenda that uplifts and respects the lives of Black people. She and other Black Lives Matter leaders are now at work on setting up meetings with Cabinet members and others in the new administration, she said.

I think now is the time to engage with this administration and spend this year really pushing them to move forward on the most progressive economic plan, a progressive plan to end police violence and mass incarceration, the most aggressive plan to really push forward a Black agenda,” she said. One goal, she added, is to advocate for passage of the Breathe Act, a roadmap created by Black Lives Matter leaders on how to re-imagine public safety.

Cullors said that in order for real change to take place, white people must be willing to see Black people in positions of power across all sectors of society, including Black women, who, she said, are often relegated to the sidelines.

I think Black women all over the world should be able to be in more leadership positions, should be in elected office and at the heads of more companies and organizations, and that is going to take a real dramatic shift,” she said, including a reformation of power structures and “reprogramming” of beliefs that white people are superior to people of color.

When asked by Alcindor what gives her hope, Cullors said seeing the support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the midst of a global pandemic was deeply touching.

Black people and our allies went to the streets in the middle of a pandemic to challenge racism,” she said. “They risked their lives. It was the largest multiracial movement in human history.”

Cullors and Alcindor also discussed the role of art in creating cultural change, and the importance of self-care during this chaotic moment in history, among other topics. The two expressed a shared hope that when King is commemorated, he is not remembered of as a civil rights leader “frozen” in time at a podium but is honored as a full human being, with joys and a family and flaws.

I think if we’re able to remember King in his full humanity, we’re actually able to give him more space and breath,” said Cullors. “And that gives other movement leaders more space and breath.”

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Bess Connolly : elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu,