The Black Lives Matter movement skyrocketed after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, with protests and rallies in cities across America and support growing as much in two weeks as it had the previous two years, according to one survey reported in The New York Times.
But what comes next? After protesters of racial violence put down their signs and the Twitter chatter fades, how does a movement become sustained change?
Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the Mississippi Burning murders of three Black voting rights advocates in 1964, offers lessons for transforming a community’s pain into healing, according to a new book, “Between Remembrance and Repair,” by Furman University sociologist Claire Whitlinger. The book is launching on Sunday, June 21, the 56th anniversary of the Mississippi murders.
In many ways, Whitlinger says, just as the voting-rights activists who were murdered more than five decades ago – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner – were faces of reform in 1964, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery are the faces of today’s movement. “We have a whole new set of martyrs for the same movement,” she says.
“That matters, because in the coming months and years there will be a lot of memory work around these lives, so the insights we learned from Philadelphia, Mississippi, will be relevant in the months and years ahead,” Whitlinger says.
“The current battle is an outcry over life and livelihood,” she says. The next battle is about remembering the past. That’s a process that has “an incremental and cumulative impact.”
The process that played out in the small Southern town was halting at first. In 1989, the 25th anniversary to commemorate the murders seemed, at the time, to fall flat.
But, Whitlinger says, it was a crack in a very hard shell. “It subtly started to wear down a conspiracy of silence” in the area that led to a much more successful commemoration in 2004. Following that event, Mississippi effectively mandated that public schools incorporate civil and human rights history at every grade level, and the Mississippi Truth Project, a large-scale oral history project that morphed into community-based dialogues, was launched.
It also brought justice to Edgar Ray Killen, a Ku Klux Klan leader, 41 years after he ordered the deaths of Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner. In 1964, Killen had walked free on charges that he violated the activists’ civil rights, but in 2005 he was convicted of three counts of manslaughter.
“The 2004 commemoration created the conditions that allowed that case to go forward,” Whitlinger says.
The main lesson of “Between Remembrance and Repair” is that the commemoration process has to start with building relationships.
In Philadelphia, Mississippi, “before they got into the commemoration planning, they got to know each other,” Whitlinger says. “That’s a really simple but profound step that a lot of communities skip.”
Part of that relationship building requires recognizing that people enter the process with their own perspectives of racial violence.
“People forget that the process of remembering is also racialized,” Whitlinger says. “One’s race shapes how we understand the past, what we think about the future, and how we want to commemorate racism in the present. When there are few opportunities for people to communicate across racial lines, there’s a risk that commemoration could create more harm.”
When communities skip the relationship building step and rush toward policy changes, the results can backfire.
“We have to change policy,” Whitlinger says. “But there’s an interpersonal human component. When engaging in memory activism, people have to transform their interpersonal relationships as they work to transform structures.”
Another lesson from her 10 years of research is that change is incremental.
“If there’s one piece of hope for memory activists, it’s that even when you feel like you’re not making an impact, you’re layering a foundation and building layers upon which future memory activists can build,” Whitlinger says.