By: Mitchell Esajas
From: Amsterdam, the Netherlands
For: Humanity In Action John Lewis Fellowship 2016
Date: July 27th 2016
From July 5th to July 29th 2016 I’ve had the privilege to participate in the inspiring and transformative Humanity In Action John Lewis Fellowship program in Atlanta, Georgia. We’ve been to delve into the fascinating history of the modern Civil Rights Movement which was part of the long struggle for freedom in the United Stated and globally and human rights in a broader perspective. We learned about Sankofa, a word and symbol from the Ghanaian Twi language which means “Go back and get it”. The symbol, a bird with an egg on its back flying forwards whilst looking backward symbolizes the interconnection between our history, our present and our future. It teaches us that we need to learn from the past whilst moving forward and planting seeds to give birth to future generations of people and ideas. In this essay I will reflect on some of the lessons I have learned from studying the history of the Civil Rights Movement and what I will take with me in my future endeavors.
The tradition of destroying the black body
In this first week of the program the US, and many people around the world, were shook by the murders of two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castille. Castille was held up for an alleged broken taillight and Sterling for selling cd’s in front of a store, both men were brutally shot by police man and sparked nationwide and global protest against the murder of young black men. Although it was heartbreaking and shocking to see the videos of these men getting shot I could not be surprised. In his seminal book ‘Between the World and Me” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote:
“In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labour – it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest.”
Indeed, “the home of the brave and land of the free”, was built on the genocide of Indigenous people and centuries of enslavement, dehumanization and racialized violence on African people. In a speech given at the Democratic National Convention, the First Lady Michelle Obama confirmed that even the White House was built by enslaved Africans. During the program we learned how the US became an economic power house based on the profits of slave labor and how a system of white supremacy was developed to legitimize and maintain a social, cultural, political order which privileged people racialized as white whilst dehumanizing millions of people racialized as black, and brow and native-Americans. The system of white supremacy consisted of an ideology based on the belief that people racialized as white were superior to other “races” on the one hand. On the other hand it consisted of social, cultural, political structures to enforce this ideologies in the everyday lives of people and government of the country. During the era of slavery Black Codes limited the freedom of enslaved Africans, after emancipation African-Americans people were considered only 3/5ths a human being and after Reconstruction the Jim Crow system was introduced which trapped masses African-Americans in a position of second class citizenship at lower level of all societal ladders.
Whiteness in Europe
When discussing white supremacy and racism the focus often tends to stay stuck on the African-American experience. In the Fellowship the focus was on the Civil Rights Movement from the perspective of Atlanta and we touched upon these issues in a global scale. Being a black European, born and bred in Amsterdam from parents who migrated from the former Dutch colony Surinam and roots in the African continent I’d like to broaden the scope. In fact, I’d argue that white supremacy and racism were invented in Europe and refined and implemented in the United States. In Europe, especially in the Netherlands, people often tend to deflect debates about racism by stating “we don’t do race, that is something they do in the United States or South Africa”. A fellow Anthropology graduate student even told me once: “the concept of race has been rejected for a long time in the Dutch scholarly society” after telling me to stop whining or move because I questioned the racist Dutch Saint Nicolas tradition. The Dutch tend to deny or downplay the existence of racism and forget their own history of colonialism and slavery. In her seminal book “White Innocence”, the only black professor in the Netherlands, Gloria Wekker described the dominant self-image of the Dutch:
“With the title White Innocence, I am invoking an important and apparently satisfying way in which the Dutch think of themselves, as being a small, but just, ethical nation; color-blind, thus free of racism; as being inherently on the moral and ethical high ground, thus a guiding light to other folks and nations.”
Indeed, “race” and racism have been a taboo for a long time in the Dutch public discourse, although it’s starting to change due to activism of black and brown communities. The Dutch were major players in the trans-Atlantic human traffic in enslaved Africans and the colonized several parts of the world including New York, major parts of Brazil, several islands in the Carribean, several coastal parts of Southern and Western Africa and several territories in Asia such as Indonesia. In fact, the first 20 Africans who were ever brought to the United States crossed the ocean on a Dutch warship in 1619 and set foot in Jamestown, Virginia. Just like the United States, the Dutch abolished slavery in 1863, however, they maintained many of their colonial territories such as Indonesia until 1947 and 1975 after periods of decolonial struggle. Although slavery was abolished a long time ago and most colonial gained independence “racism” continued to be an issue, but it became a taboo because of the atrocities of the Second World War which were legitimized by the white supremacist and racist ideology of the nazi’s. Did this mean that racism and white supremacy immediately disappear? No, several reports by organizations such as the Dutch Institute for Human Rights and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) confirmed that racism continues to reproduce structural inequality in the Netherlands, especially in the case of people of African descent:
“The Committee is concerned about the increase in discrimination, including racial profiling and stigmatization, faced by people of African descent.”
The birth of a movement for black lives in the Netherlands
Over the past few years a social movement arose against the national Dutch blackface tradition Saint Nicolas in which millions of white Dutch people dress up in blackface. Throughout the years myself and many of my friends and fellow activists have participated in actions and advocacy to change the tradition. Some of us have been arrested, some of us have been prosecuted, jailed and physically, verbally and digitally violated. We have been inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and organized several nonviolent direct actions such as the “Freedom Ride to Meppel” where hundreds of people demonstrated against the national blackface tradition during the annual national Saint Nicolas parade. Much like the Civil Rights Movement we have been able to bring attention to race related injustices in Dutch society by getting into “good trouble, as John Lewis called it. This has created space to break the taboo and the silence around racism in Dutch society and placed it on the political agenda. Much work still needs to be done but the spirit of resistance has grown.
A tradition of resistance: the struggle for freedom
As much as the destruction of black bodies has been an American tradition and a practice in European imperial nations, there has been a tradition of resistance on the side of the oppressed African people as well. Starting on the slave ships, Africans actively and passively resisted slavery, Jim Crow and other forms of oppression in the US. Stories of resistance such as the Amistad revolt, the uprising lead by Nat Turner and the Underground Railroad lead by Harriet Tubman show that process of dehumanization had never been accomplished and Africans retained a sense of dignity and humanity despite the inhumane conditions they were forced to live in. During the Fellowship we learned how the spirit of resistance culminated in the modern Civil Rights Movement with Martin Luther King Jr. as the shining light and icon of a movement that was able to overthrow the system of Jim Crow segregation after centuries of white supremacist oppression. This movement did not operate and arise in a vacuum, it was the result of decades of organized resistance, strategic planning and social, political and cultural developments in what dr. Simms-Alvarado called “the long struggle for freedom”. Several movements, organizations and individuals such as Frederick Douglass and the Abolitionist movement, W.E.B. duBois and the NAACP and Marcus Garvey and the UNIA. Even during and after the formation of the modern Civil Rights Movement other organization and movements such as the Nation of Islam and the Black Power Movement lead by icons as Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael had a major influence on the emancipation of African-Americans and African people worldwide. As La’Niece Littleton said, they had a different view on methods and tactics, especially in regards to the philosophy of nonviolence, but they had the same end goal and played an essential role in the struggle for freedom. At the same time different anti-colonial movements organized and mobilized against systems of oppression in countries such as South-Africa, Ghana, Algeria and other African and Asian countries but also in the former Dutch colony Surinam. And these movements and movement leaders were interconnected. In an archive in Amsterdam I found evidence of correspondence between a Surinamese anti-colonial organizer Otto Huiswoud, W.E.B. duBois and Langston Hughes who were part of the movements in the United States. Huiswoud debated Marcus Garvey in Jamaica in 1929. In the building where my organization, New Urban Collective resides, I found newspapers from the 50’s and 60s with articles about the Civil Rights Movement and evidence that Surinamese anti-colonial organizations were in fact in contact with and inspired by the Civil Rights Movement of the US and other anti-colonial and anti-racist movements across the world. The modern Civil Rights Movement, however, became one of the most powerful forces for social change as it was the first mass movement of black people that was able to effectively confront and disrupt the white supremacist system resulting in historic civil rights legislation. Several lessons can be learned from the long movement for black freedom. Based on the John Lewis Fellowship program lectures, excursion, literature and discussions developed an overview of the lessons that can be learned from the Civil Rights Movement which can be seen in the appendix.
Check the 'Eyes on the Prize' documentary series for a coherent history of the long struggle for freedom in the US
The New Jim Crow and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Although slavery was formally abolished more than 150 years ago and Jim Crow segregation ended a “racial caste system” continues to reproduce the American tradition to destroy black bodies.
Despite major victories of the modern Civil Rights Movement and subsequent movements for black liberation, white supremacy continues to dehumanize and devalue the lives of black, brown and native-American people in severe ways. According to research by the Malcolm X grassroots movement, in 2012 every 28 hours a black man, woman or child was killed by someone employed by the US government or the police. In 2015, 306 black people were killed by the police of which 294 were males. This amounted to 15% of all deaths by police force whilst black males only make up 2% of the total US population. More than 7 million Americans are in prison, on probation or parole, mostly for drug crimes. Their convictions remain or their records and limit their voting rights and their job opportunities. In all states, except for two, citizens with felony convictions are prohibited from voting. African-American males are sentenced an average of 20 to 50 times higher longer prison than white males of the same drug crime. This keeps millions of black people trapped at the bottom of the social ladder and sets forth the tradition of destroying black bodies as there are large gaps between white and black Americans in other spheres of life as well. Michelle Alexander, calls this modern day “racial caste system” “the New Jim Crow’, a system based on the prison-industrial-complex and mass incarceration rooted in neoliberal capitalism and the legacy of colonialism. Also in other sphered of life racial inequality remains a pressing problem in American society. From education, to the labor market, from access to healthcare to political representation, despite the victories of the Civil Rights Movement and the election of Obama the disparities between black and white continue to exist. For example, the median wealth for single black woman was $100 compared to $41,500 for single white women. Since Obama came to power the median income of Black households fell by 10.9% to $33.500 compared to a 3.6% drop for white household to $58.000. Black college graduates were more than twice as likely to be unemployed compared to their white peers in 2014 with unemployment rates of 12 percent for black graduates versus 4.9% for white graduates. 26% of Black households are “food insecure” and 25% of black women have no health insurance. At the same time an elite of black politicians, corporate managers and executives rose after the 60s creating significant class differences within the black community.
Marching with #BlackLivesMatter Atlanta
The violent deaths of many young black man and women have sparked the birth a 21st century movement in the United States. #BlackLivesMatter was co-founded was created by three black women, of whom two are queer, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman who murdered the 17 year old Trayvon Martin in 2013. This fact already distinguishes this present day movement from the modern Civil Rights Movement in which women were marginalized and their contribution has been silenced due to patriarchy and sexism. Over the past years millions of people have flooded the streets demanding to stop police brutality by marching, sitting in, blocking intersections and other forms of nonviolent direct action. Social media have allowed this movement to gain international attention to the pressing issue of race in a time many people considered as the post-racial era of Obama. Even during the Fellowship we were confronted with the state violence on black bodies through the killing of Castille and Sterling. I marched and protested in the same streets dr. King and millions of others have marched for four days in a row, I participated in acts of civil disobedience by shutting down highways and intersections and I chanted #BlackLivesMatter with more than 10 000 other people in a massive demonstration through the streets of Atlanta. Together with 100s of other people I occupied and reclaimed a space which used to be the place were enslaved Africans were sold. The march was powerful as it allowed me and many others to express emotions of anger, frustration and dissatisfaction with the system which continues to dehumanize and devalue black lives, it was a way to collectively heal from the traumatic experience of seeing the killing of men who looked like me. After days of protest the mayor of Atlanta and the police chief agreed to meet with leaders of the movement. This is where a few point of improvement of the #BlackLivesMatter movement became visible. According to John Eaves, chair of the Fulton Country Board of Commissioners, it became clear that the protestors did not fully understand how to turn their protest into concrete demands for policy changes and at which level of government to advocate for these changes. In addition, it became clear that it was not clear who the spokesperson of the movement was as one of the people who claimed to be a spokesperson was denounced by the national #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Lessons from the modern Civil Rights Movementfor the #BlackLivesMatter movement
Despite the shortcomings of the #BlackLivesMatter movement they have been able to mobilize thousands of people and garner the attention of ordinary people, the international community and decision makers around the world, much like the Civil Rights Movement who used dramatic nonviolent protest to put pressure on the authorities through the attention they received via mass media. The 21st century #BlackLivesMatter movement both in the United States and in Europe and other places in the world face different, possibly more difficult challenges, as the issues we face today are more complex, less tangible compared to the Jim Crow system and it is tied to a global system of neoliberal capitalism and white supremacy. There are countless lessons to learn from the Civil Rights Movement, both from its successes and failures. Based on the literature, lectures, discussions and my own reflections I have made an overview of the Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement, in this concluding paragraph I will elaborate on three of the lessons for the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the movement in the Netherlands from a global perspective:
- From protest to policy transformation
One of the major strengths of the Civil Rights Movement was that its goals and objectives were concrete, they strived to achieve equality and justice for black people through the establishment of Civil Rights such as the right to vote, the desegregation of schools, public transport and other public facilities and equal access to jobs and housing. Based on these demand they developed strategies and tactics to realize these objectives through the organizational structures and networks which they had built up. Although #BlackLivesMatter have a list of demands on a national and local level, it seems to be focused on police brutality which is extremely important but not the “root cause” of the problem, it is merely a manifestation of the system of white supremacy and neoliberal capitalism. Fighting police brutality will not absolve the underlying systems and structures which continue to devalue and dehumanize black people, people of color and (white) working class people. To achieve black liberation and for our basic human rights to be respected the organizing principles of the neoliberal capitalist system which inherently feeds of a global and national “racial caste” of black and non-white people must be addressed. I realize that this is a difficult and tough thing to do, but it is necessary for sustainable transformation of the system.
- Education is the passport to the future
As the systems of oppression operate in subtle and complex ways we need a thorough understanding of how they work and manifest in different national and local contexts and how they interrelate on a global level. Another strength of the Civil Rights Movement was that its leadership had a thorough understanding of the underlying systems and structures which produced racial and economic inequality and oppression in the United States. Dr. King wrote several publications in which he explained the philosophy of the movement and how what he called “the triple evils of poverty, racism and militarism” kept people in a vicious cycle of violence. The Civil Rights Movement was supported by black institutions such as the Black Church and just as important Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s) such as Clark-Atlanta universities which allowed the masses of grassroots organizers and protesters to connect with and be informed the heavy intellectual work which is needed to understand how the systems operate. Based on this intellectual work concrete demands, strategies and tactics were developed. Malcolm X once said: "Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today", I belief education, in the broadest sense of the word, is essential in transforming ourselves and the world around us. Currently I work in the field of (higher) education and social justice. Inspired by this Fellowship and the Martin Luther King Jr. archive at Morehouse college specifically I aim to set up the first black archive in Amsterdam which can function as a center of meeting and learning for grassroots activists and scholars.
- International Solidarity
The third lesson we can learn from the Civil Rights Movement is the international solidarity they build with other oppressed people across the world. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of the movement realized that the struggle for freedom of African-Americans was related to the struggle for freedom of black people and other oppressed people who suffered from the systems of white supremacy, colonialism and capitalism across the world. Martin Luther King Jr. visited the inauguration of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, the first African country to gain political independence from the British empire in 1957 and connected the Civil Rights Movement to the struggle for independence in Africa in his “A birth of a new nation” speech. A few years later he wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:
“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea.”
Malcolm X visited several African countries and became an outspoken advocate for pan-Africanism, realizing that the system of oppression of African-Americans was connected to the oppression of Africans worldwide. Just like the movements of resistance and decolonization were connected worldwide. As dr. Livingstone argued during his presentation on #BlackLivesMatter in a global perspective, white supremacy is a global system and is not just about police brutality. In the US hundreds of black people die at the hands of the police annually in the United States. In Brazil every 23 minutes a black youth is killed, over the past decade 8 000 people, mostly black people, were murdered by the police according to research of Human Rights Watch. Although it happens on a smaller scale racial profiling is a problem in Europe as well. Amnesty International published a report about ethnic profiling in the Netherlands en the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) stated in its report on Afrophobia in the European Union that racial profiling affects black communities across Europe.  On the same day that the judge ruled that all charges against police officers in the# Freddy Gray case in Baltimore were dropped a judge ruled that the police officer who shot an unarmed 21 year old black youth in the Hague in june 2016 would not face charges either. His name was Mitchel Winters. A year earlier the police choked a black man to death on video, this led to a massive uprising in the Hague. His name was Mitch Henriquez.
Besides police brutality, many people of African descent are faced with poverty, environmental racism, a lack of quality education and other human rights violations based on the global system of neoliberal capitalism and white supremacy. Do the lives matter of black miners who risk their lives digging for Coltan which are necessary for the smartphones which allow us to tweet #BlackLivesMatter? Do the lives of black children and poor peasants who farm cocoa for the chocolate we eat? Do the lives matter of black youth in the favelas who face similar state violence by militarized police as the militarized police squads who took over protesters after the uprising in Baltimore after the killing of Freddie Gray? All of these black lives should matter. Many people across the world realize that. After the killing of Sterling and Castille there were massive demonstrations in Amsterdam, Berlin, London, Cape Town and Johannesburg. On the question why he participated in the demonstration in Cape Town, Mone, A South African student said: “We are lamenting the same pain we are feeling with them. We are here to send the message that black lives matter everywhere in the world.”  To complicate our thinking even further, many other communities of color and working class whites face similar issues. During the program we learned how Native-American and Latinx communities face similar and related issues within the US and over the past years the international community has been shook by the large number of refugees, mostly black and brown, who die anonymously or live in inhumane conditions, after fleeing their homes. By gaining more understanding of the complex ways in which these systems of oppression operate globally, nationally and locally we should be able to mobilize and strategize on global, national and local levels as well to formulate substantial concrete demands and mobilize people around the world to transform these systems so all people can live their lives and realize their full potential.
 Gloria Wekker, White Innocence: paradoxes of colonialism and race. Duke University press 2016
 CERD (2015), Concluding observations on the nineteenth to twenty-first periodic reports of the Netherlands. Adopted by the Committee at its eighty-seventh session (3-28 August 2015).
 Due to limitations in the number of words for this essay I have not explained every element of the overview and limited the explanation of three lessons from the overview.
 Taylor, K. Y. (2016). From# BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. Haymarket Books. P.11-12
 I have written about my experiences in a blog on the website of StopBlackface.com: http://stopblackface.com/mitchells-humanity-in-action-john-lewis-fellowship-blog/