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The 5 black activists you need to know about

A few months ago around 11:00pm, I had just finished hanging out with a friend at a local bar in downtown Oakland, CA. As I was walking out of the bar and on my way to my car, I saw a SWAT team to my right standing around and waiting. If you’re familiar with Oakland, you would know that this is nothing all too out of the ordinary. I didn’t think very much of it.

Minutes later I was in my car at a red light. Suddenly, a couple of people dressed in all black passed by me as they skateboarded in the middle of one of the busiest streets of Oakland. I still didn’t think much of it. Not until I found myself at another red light with a SWAT team to my right and a swarm of protesters to my left did I realise something different was going on. One protester shouts at me to run the red light and essentially get out of their way so they can march in protest against the killings of unarmed black men at the hands of police officers. The situation made me start to think and what I came up with was: why am I in my car and not out there with them?

The large scale protests have slowed down, but the dialogue and movement to re-examine and change the systematic discrimination of black people is still alive and well.

With that in mind I wanted to pay tribute to Black Future Month

Wait, what? Don’t you mean Black History Month? Actually, no.

At a time when a slew of protests across the US have rallied for the equal treatment of black people, a new light is being shined on the oppression of black lives today. This includes the glaring, but historically unaddressed statistics, on the incarceration, unemployment, and discrimination experienced by black people. And the question being asked is: where do we go from here?

So, in honor of Black "Future" Month let’s take a look at modern day black activists, and the communities behind them, who are making black voices heard and demanding open dialogue, progressive change and, most importantly, equality. Some of these people are prestigious academics, lawyers and civil rights activists and others are concerned citizens, who are getting involved and standing up for the equal treatment of black people in the USA.

1. Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors

Flickr: PicturesNew York LG

Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi are the leading women, who you may not have heard their names before, but unless you’ve been hibernating for the past two years, you are familiar with their work. These three inspirational women are behind the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

#BlackLivesMatter was started by Cullors, Garza and Tometi following the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012. #BlackLivesMatter is most widely known as a grassroots movement protesting the killing of unarmed black men by police officers. However, Garza is quick to point out that the movement is about all black lives and not just black men. In her own words, Black Lives Matter, “affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.“

Engage with the movement on twitter or facebook.

2. Michelle Alexander

Flickr: Miller Center

Civil rights lawyer, former director of the Racial Justice Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and author of the book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander has been spreading awareness about the systemic discrimination evidenced in the mass incarceration rates of African-American men. The inspiration for the book, came from Alexander’s work at the ACLU in Oakland, CA.

While working on the campaign “Driving While Black”, a young black man approached Alexander with notes on the dates, times, and nature in which he was stopped by the Oakland police. Hearing this man’s story, Alexander believed this was the case she had long been awaiting for as an example of bad police behavior-up until the man said he had a drug felony charge. According to Alexander, “ I just stopped listening to him when he said he was a felon, and I asked myself, how am I replicating the very form of discrimination that I am supposed to be fighting against?”

I fiercely support Alexander for being vocal about this story. Change is often discussed as something outside of ourselves, our personal circles, and sometimes outside of our communities. But, progressive change cannot be made without willingness for self-reflection and honesty. She talks the talk and walks the walk.

3. The Cast of The Throwaways

If statistics aren't your thing, you can watch The Throwaways, a documentary narrated, co-produced and co-directed by a formerly incarcerated activist and filmmaker, Ira McKinley. The documentary focuses on the difficulties and obstacles formerly incarcerated African-American men face as they try to reintegrate into society and how prevailing racial profiling and police brutality are affecting black communities.

Youtube: Ira Mckinley

The film begins with a personal look at McKinley’s experience with discrimination and homelessness after being incarcerated. It then expands its focus to examine how black communities are impacted by mass incarcerations and racially motivated tactics by police. The documentary culminates with a look at the obstacles concerned citizens are facing in challenging the system and promoting change. The film ends on an optimistic note, as opportunities for McKinley’s voice (with tenacious effort) are able to shine through. At the end of The Throwaways, McKinley states:

“I never thought I was a throwaway. You thought I was a throwaway. I’m not the person you’re trying to make me out to be. I have value."

But The Throwaways is not just about being sentimental. In a recent screening of The Throwaways in Berkeley, CA an outpouring of support and admiration for McKinley’s success and ability to overcome obstacles was expressed. However, as co-director and co-producer Bhawin Suchak has pointed out, we should use caution before idolizing the success of one person, as this can detract from the very nature of a systemic problem. One must keep in mind that behind one person’s success there is a network and community of supporters. He adds that, most importantly, black communities need our support and participation.

If you would like to watch The Throwaways and/or attend a discussion with McKinley and Suchak you can view the screening schedule here.

4. Benjamin Jealous

Flickr: The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

Dubbed “one of the nation’s most prominent civil rights leaders” by the Washington Post, Benjamin Jealous is someone you should definitely keep your eye on. Jealous served as the youngest president of the NAACP — A 106-year old African-American civil rights organization — where he stabilized the organization’s finances, increased its dwindling membership, and expanded its social media presence.

Although Jealous’ achievements at the NAACP are, ahem, jealous-worthy, his activism when he was a student is even more inspiring. Jealous’ long career in activism started while he was in elementary school, where he protested the lack of books on African-Americans in the school library. Years later, while pursuing his undergraduate degree, he was suspended from Columbia University where he protested against the university’s plan to tear down the site of Malcolm X 's assassination.

With credentials such as those, I’m definitely looking forward to what the future holds for him. Currently, Jealous is a partner of Kapor Capital, the venture capitalist arm of the Kapor Center for Social Impact. The group invests in companies that look to provide more opportunities for underserved communities or involve the disruptive democratization of a sector.

5. Jimmie Briggs

LinkedIn profile photo

Jimmie Briggs is a human rights activist most widely known for his investigative journalism on war-affected children, child soldiers and victims of sexual violence in Africa. I first learned about Briggs and his work as a UN Special Rapporteur on Children and Conflict (basically, an expert for the experts), while researching for my thesis on child soldiers. But Briggs’ recent and notable work is as the founder and executive director of the Man Up Campaign. The Man Up Campaign, through innovative training, resources and support aims to mobilize young women and men to become today’s advocates and defenders in ending violence against women. Through the Man Up Campaign and speaking engagements at middle schools and high schools, Briggs inspires a global army of young people to stop violence against women and girls in their communities.

On March 5th-8th, 2015, the Man Up Campaign is co-sponsoring the International Conference on Masculinities: Engaging Men and Boys for Gender Equality in New York. If you would like more information on the event, go here.

6. Bonus Throwback: Anne Moody

On February 5, the world lost one of the Civil Rights Movement's most endearing activists. Passing away at the age of 74, Anne Moody, was most known for her memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi, which recounts her experience of racism and sexism during the 1960s. The oldest of nine children, Moody felt the pains of racism at an early age. She attended segregated schools and cleaned houses as a child to help her family make ends meet.

She once described herself as "a reluctant writer." But in 1969, the self-proclaimed reluctant writer received the Brotherhood Award from the National Council of Christians and Jews and the Best Book of the Year Award from the National Library Association. Moody shunned public attention and never gave interviews, which is perhaps why, the most captivating image of her in my mind will always be (picture above) of the black student activist sitting at a white customer-only, Woolworth lunch counter in Jackson, Mississippi.


Black Future Month should not be misconstrued as an argument against Black History Month, which has been celebrated for the past nine decades. For any community to evolve and grow, it must never forget where it comes from, but its future will always be defined by where it is going. While significant progress has been made since the US Civil Rights Movement, our future depends on the work being done right now. Today there are many inspiring individuals who are fighting for social justice and the equality of black people. And while this list is comprised of impressive individuals, global citizens must keep in mind that behind a great person is a group of supporters. For progressive and sustainable change to happen personal reflection on our own thoughts, actions and interactions with our community are essential in realizing how we can contribute our support and effort for the equality of all black lives.

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Francis Bencik