Social media was clogged with daunting remarks of criticism geared toward billionaire, entrepreneur and television legend Oprah Winfrey recently. The negative comments were in reaction to her commentary regarding her view of progress and strategy being used in Ferguson, Missouri and the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
Oprah’s comments were made in an interview with People Magazine: “I think it’s wonderful to march and to protest and it’s wonderful to see all across the country people doing it. What I’m looking for is some kind of leadership to come out of this to say, ‘This is what we want. This is what has to change, and these are the steps that we need to take to make these changes, and this is what we’re willing to do to get it.’”
Oprah’s remarks clearly rubbed many young activists leading the “Black Lives Matter” movement the wrong way. There is credibility and competent leadership at the forefront of this movement. Young people who took to the streets in protests while older, more seasoned activists were looking to be on CNN and MSNBC for their 15 minutes of fame further proves that protest leaders are sincere and are working for change.
The Ferguson movement has seen many members of the local clergy, who have given from their own pockets, go to jail. They led marches to the Missouri state capitol and did a number of productive and thankless jobs to help provide purpose, motivation and direction. Leaders outside of the greater St. Louis area have lent their time and resources to even go as far as providing housing to organizers during their time in the area.
Some of the criticism that was geared towards Ms. Winfrey could be viewed as appropriate and possibly warranted. However, comments made in reference to her support for progressive causes, advocating for people of color and catering to her white following at the expense of her roots are far-fetched and erroneous.
It’s essential that we are wise and not find ourselves alienating an ally and a potential supporter of the movement. For decades, Oprah Winfrey has lifted up African Americans seeking opportunities of advancement through her own charity, Harpo Productions, her girls school in Africa and countless other ventures.
Oprah Winfrey has not just talked about her commitment to equality and progress, she has taken action. Annually Oprah donates millions to charities and organizations that help children of color in urban areas and other progressive causes that help address the many undergirding issues that have come to light since the killing of Michael Brown Jr. Lest we forget, Oprah Winfrey was one of the first national figures to openly endorse President Barack Obama, America’s first African-American president.
Oprah’s remarks in People Magazine were not to insult or repress those leading or supporting the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Her remarks were in reference to a much larger issue – strategy. They were also geared towards encouraging Ferguson leaders and others to see her motion picture “Selma” for a frame of reference to compare Selma 50 years ago and Ferguson now. The movie tells the story of the unknown heroes who laid the ground work for the landmark Voting Rights Act. It also highlights the strategy that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his leadership team utilized.
From viewing the film “Selma,” there are a number of key lessons that can be applied to today’s movement. One is placing aside differences in philosophies, views or organizations and working together in concert for one goal. In the film, John Lewis had to make a critical decision to leave SNCC to work closely with Dr. King in the planning of the march from Selma to Montgomery. His departure from SNCC was done, not to admonish his home organization or to deprecate their efforts, but to work in unison with leadership that benefited the nation and the cause in a greater way. The same issues that SNCC had regarding Dr. King’s presence in Selma are nearly identical to the same divide between established civil rights leaders and young activists in Ferguson and across the country.
Another valuable lesson that can be utilized from “Selma” is Dr. King’s strategic use of the press. Dr. King used the press to show the world what took place in the streets of the South, along with the brutality that many demonstrators faced. Bloody Sunday was broadcast on national television to over 70 million Americans, placing even greater pressure on President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Congress to act and pass legislation.
“Selma” also shows the strategy that was used to get the Voting Rights Act passed. Dr. King, who led the movement, communicated regularly with President Johnson and leveraged the power of the vote to sway the president to take action.
The question now for protest leaders must move beyond justice for Michael Brown Jr. and Eric Garner (and others), toward developing an achievable, measurable and robust national strategy that will urge the Congress and the president to pass sweeping legislation addressing police brutality, excessive force and racial profiling.
With President Obama looking to use his pen to issue executive orders to take certain actions that the Congress refuses to take, it’s my hope that movement leaders will begin placing pressure on the commander and chief to consider his legacy, the same way that Dr. King asked Lyndon Johnson to consider his own.
John Gaskin is a Ferguson native and a regular guest on the “Situation Room With Wolf Blitzer” on CNN. Gaskin is one of the youngest members of the NAACP National Board of Directors.