Will Black Lives Matter movement lead to enduring change?

The “Black Lives Matter (BLM)” movement has gained a lot of momentum and support in the country. Incident after incident where people of color face unfair and fatal treatments have been documented and shared. The black community by and large channeled their grief, suffering, and support into peaceful protests for permanent change in the society. This time it feels it will lead to sustained change in local and state communities. While BLM may mean many things to people, at the simplest level, this movement is calling for equal and fair treatment/justice for people of color, and ability to lead peaceful and productive lives with dignity without any fear.  The BLM movement has significant similarities and differences to other similar movements in history such as Civil Rights and Indian Independence. Examining them will help to learn important lessons to ensure the gains are tangible, long term, and truly delivers on the expectations.

When we look at past successful movements in history, they have the following four main characteristics.

  • Peaceful protests – Any expression of support espouses non-violence.
  • Simplicity of the message – Everyone can easily understand and follow the message.
  • Inspiring leadership – There is one or a group of inspiring and organic leaders who can capture the imagination of many and galvanize support.  
  • Goals – Everyone is clear about the goals to be achieved and there is board support and alignment.

Let us quickly look at the Indian independence movement as an example of how these four characteristics played out.

  • Nonviolent struggle – The leaders of the movement strictly followed a nonviolent (“ahimsa”) method of protests, attracting the support of large majority of people. By taking violence off the table, the arms superiority that the British enjoyed was neutralized. Britain who prided itself as a civilized nation could not sustain using violent methods against civilians protesting peacefully.   
  • Message – Leaders understood for Britain to leave India, they must make it very costly and difficult for the British to rule India. They devised simple, effective, and easily followable messages aimed at upsetting the economic and legislative foundation of the British rule.
    • Boycott British Goods – This simple message helped to develop a market for local products, denied British market share, and was easily understood and adopted by the masses.
    • Civil Disobedience – This aimed at peacefully disobeying the restrictive laws to a point they became irrelevant.
  • Leadership – The movement was led by Mahatma Gandhi. He was charismatic, simple, organically grew with the movement, and led by example. He was well educated, travelled far and wide to speak with the people, inspiring them to participate in peaceful marches, spread the message to others to join the movement. He never had hatred or malice towards the British. He simply wanted them to leave India.
  • Goals – Gandhi and other leaders in the movement declared “Poorna Swaraj” or Complete Independence as the goal for the movement. This provided a lot of clarity and purpose for the movement. Everyone understood what the end goal was and rallied to this.

The BLM movement is peaceful, and its message is simple. It has growing support from people of all backgrounds. The two areas where it differs from other successful movements is with leadership and goals. BLM has been led by local leaders. Thus far, lack of national leadership has not hampered its momentum. In terms of goals, people understand the message/cause, but BLM has not articulated a comprehensive list of legislative, community, or other goals.

With grass roots effort, BLM has succeeded in raising the country’s conscience about race relations. It may be time for all the local communities to form a grand alliance, come together in a form of a national conference, and establish the goals of the movement. This national conference may also help identify the national leaders from within the movement who has strategic vision, emote to people, and lead by example.