Sunday, December 14, 2014

From Freedom To Justice: Changes In African American Protest Terminology & Strategies

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post explores the changes that have occurred from the 1960s and thereafter in the terminology and strategies that have been used by African American protestors and their allies.

Also included in this post are two videos of 1960s civil rights marches, one video of the Jena 6 protests (2007) and five videos of 2013-2014 Black justice demonstrations.

This post is part of an ongoing pancocojams series on protest chants. Click,, and for three other posts in this series.

The content of this post is presented for historical and cultural purposes.

Thanks to all those who have worked and those who are now working for equality and justice for all.

"Freedom" meant being able to be an equal part of all aspects of American life.
"Civil Rights" meant full and equal access to all American public institutions and services.

The 1960s African American protest movement is called the "Civil Rights movement". The word "protestors" wasn't commonly used to refer to that movement's participants. The general public referred to the protest movements as "demonstrations" and called their participants "demonstrators". The movement's participants called themselves "freedom fighters", and "freedom riders". "Freedom riders" were Black people and White people who challenged racial laws in the American South in the 1960s by refusing to abide by the laws designating that seating in buses be segregated by race.( addition to "freedom rides", the main tactics that freedom fighters used were boycotts of services, marches, rallies, and sit-ins. "Sit-ins" are any organized protest in which a group of people peacefully occupy and refuse to leave a premises. ( This tactic was first used in the Civil Rights movement to force the desegregation of public restaurants in the South.

Numerous songs and chants used by that movement included the word "freedom". An example of a "freedom song" is:
"0h freedom!
Oh freedom!
Oh freedom over me.
And before I be a slave
I'll be buried in my grave.
And go home to my Lord
And be free."

An example of a civil rights call & response chant from the 1960s is:
"What do we want?
When do we want it?

An example of a civil rights unison chant from the 1960s is "Freedom now!"

The late 1960s/1970s - THE BLACK POWER MOVEMENT
The Black power movement* "emphasiz[ed] racial pride and the creation of black political and cultural institutions to nurture and promote black collective interests and advance black values (

The participants in this movement were referred to and referred to themselves as "Black power activists". The rallying cries for "freedom" and "civil rights" weren't used by Black power activists. Instead, the rallying calls were for "Black power!" and "Power to the People". Also, the
"Black power salute" was used as a widespread symbol of that movement. The Black power salute is usually made by holding the left arm above your head and sometimes extended slightly forward with the right hand in a fist. The facial expression is serious to indicate determination.

Quoting from the Wikipedia article on the black power movement whose link was previously given
"Though Black Power at the most basic level refers to a political movement, the psychological and cultural messages of the Black Power movement, though less tangible, have had perhaps a longer lasting impact on American society than concrete political changes...

The impact of the Black Power movement in generating valuable discussion about ethnic identity and black consciousness manifests itself in the relatively recent proliferation of academic fields such as American studies, Black Studies, and Africana studies in both national and international institutions. The respect and attention accorded to African Americans’ history and culture in both formal and informal settings today is largely a product of the movement for Black Power in the 1960s and 1970s."
Wearing natural hairstyles such as the "afro" and "locks" ("dreadlocks") and adopting afro-centric
clothing fashions is also attributed to the late 1960s/1970s Black power movement.

It's significant to note that while singing protest songs was an integral part of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, singing (not including a person or people singing in front of an audience) isn't a part of Black protest movements since that decade.

*When used as a referent for Black people, it's appropriate for the letter "b" to either be capitalized or written in lower case.

Some online references extend the Black power movement to the 1980s.

I've not been able to find any information about Black (African American) protest movements or chants in the 1980s

BLACK JUSTICE PROTESTS - 1990s to date [strategies]
Since the 1990s, African American led demonstrations have been called "protests" and the participants in these demonstrations are called "protestors" and "demonstrators".

Instead of "freedom", "civil rights", or "black power", the rallying cry for these protests has been "justice". The word "justice" refers to "social justice", meaning "equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities" In particular, since the 1990s, Black protests movement in the United States focus on the lack of justice for Black and Brown people in the criminal justice system and
the police's unequal treatment of Black and Brown people. Special focus of these protests has been the deaths of unarmed Black and Brown males by police officers and the lack of indictment of those police officers. Note that in the United States "Brown people" is usually a referent for Latinos/Latinas.

Note that a very significant aspect of the Black justice protest movements is the participation of persons across all racial, gender, age, and religious categories.

Among the tactics that justice protestors utilize are:
Marches include planned organized marches to a specific location or locations and roving marches in which crowds move perhaps randomly throughout a large city.
This tactic, which involves laying on the ground in imitation of a death, may have begun with Trayvon Martin protests in 2012. However, "die-ins" are most often associated with the death of
Eric Garner, New York City, July 17, 2014, Michael Brown, Jr. (Ferguson, Missouri, August 9, 2014, and a number of other Black males in 2014. In particular the practice of timing these die-ins for four and a half minutes is done to symbolize the four and one half hours that Michael Brown Jr. was left on the ground after he was killed by police officer Darren Wilson.

UPDATE: Read the correction in the comment section that si sent in that dates die ins to the 1980s if not earlier. "ACT UP and other gay-rights/AIDS activist organizations held die ins to call attention to the ignored AIDS plague in the 1980s."
-end of quote-
Thanks, si!

This tactic involves leaving (walking out of) a school or other place to as a form of protest and/or as an expression of support for protest or an issue or issues.
blockading (shutting down) streets, highways, and bridges
Protestors marching on streets, highways, and bridges and blocking access to those places in order
to draw attention to their demands.

Special mention can be made of the "Moral Mondays" protests that began in North Carolina in 2013.
"The protests are characterized by engaging in civil disobedience by entering the state legislature building and then being peacefully arrested. The movement protests many wide ranging issues under the blanket of unfair treatment, discrimination, and adverse effects of government legislation on the citizens of North Carolina. The protests in North Carolina launched a grassroots social justice movement that, in 2014, spread to Georgia and South Carolina,[1] and then to other U.S. states."
Unlike the Occupy protests in the United States and elsewhere that began in September 2011, with
the exceptions of certain sit-ins, Black justice protestors don't occupy locations for long periods of time.

BLACK JUSTICE PROTESTS - 1990s to date [chants]
Among the rallying calls (chants) that are used by justice protestors are:
"No Justice, No Peace" (If we don't have justice, there will be no peace.)

It appears that "no justice/no peace" was also first used in protests against the murder of Malice Green by a Detroit, Michigan police officer in November 1992. ( unison chant is often heard in 2014 protests against the killing of unarmed Black and Brown people by the police and the lack of indictment of those police officers.

"No justice/no peace/no racist police" is an expansion of "no justice/no peace" that was also reported as being used in the Malice Green protest marches. That chant is also used in 2014.

"I can't breathe" (These were the last words that Eric Garner repeatedly said while he was being placed in a chokehold by police officer Daniel Pantaleo. Some die-ins last for eleven minutes to symbolize the number of times Eric Garner said "I can't breathe."

An expansion of "I can't breathe" is the unison chant "If we can't breathe/you can't breathe". That chant refers to the non-violent acts of civil disobedience that are done to draw attention to the issue of the lack of justice in the criminal justice system and the actions of bad police officers which go unpunished in that system.

"Shut it down!
(Read the comment about "blocking [shutting down] streets etc.)

"Hands up!/ Don't shoot".
"Hands up. Don't shoot" is a call and response chant with accompanying body gesture of both hands held overhead in the universal symbol of surrender. This chant and its accompanying body gesture dates from Michael Brown Jr.'s death. That chant and its gesture symbolize witnesses report of Michael Brown Jr.'s hands being raised in surrender when he was killed.

Black lives matter.

Forward together. Not one step back. [Moral Monday movement]


Example #1: Martin Luther King Jr marches with people demonstrating for voting rights and oth...HD Stock Footage

CriticalPast, Published on Jun 29, 2014

Example #2: MLK; March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom 1963/08/28

Universal Newsreels, Uploaded on Feb 21, 2009

Just one hundred years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves, 200,000 march in Washington to rally for civil rights and to urge Congress to pass the Civil Rights Bill. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. speaks and meets President Kennedy.

Example #3: Thousands Block Times Square for Trayvon Martin Protest

Gabbee, Published on Jul 15, 2013

Reaction continues across the country following Saturday night's verdict in the George Zimmerman trial.

Zimmerman is a free man after being found not guilty on all counts in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

The protests have been peaceful, for the most part.

Protests went on Sunday throughout the New York City. The largest was a march from Union Square to Times Square.

"This whole situation with Trayvon Martin is definitely ... has hit home for everybody. "This could be my brother, our sister, whether you're Black, White, whatever," said Melanie Torrence a demonstrator.

Crowds began gathering in Union Square earlier in the day and by 6:30 p.m. had nearly doubled and began spilling into the streets.

"We have to do this to show support because it's absolute essential for everyone to know that we do not feel happy with the decision," said Kate Dolan a demonstrator.

Dolan, from the Upper West Side, said while Zimmerman may be free, she hopes the frustration and disappointment felt by so many can be channeled into changing policy and legislation like Florida's Stand Your Ground law that does not require people to retreat before using force.

"Well, I think we have to recognize the justice system doesn't always provide justice and that we have got to find ways to counter legislative movements that have created laws that are now fair," Dolan said.

At the side, a lone demonstrator showed support of Zimmerman and his acquittal.

"I feel like the media and all the people made it about racism when it was really just a matter of self-defense," the unidentified woman said.

She left after clashing with Trayvon Martin supporters. By 8:00 p.m., those demonstrators had taken over Times Square, many sitting in the street, on top of cars, blocking traffic and refusing to move.

The NYPD says the demonstration were peaceful and there were no arrests.

Example #4: NBC News - Jena 6 - 9-20-07

musclegms, Uploaded on Sep 20, 2007

NBC finally airs real details about the Jena 6 that many media outlets won't.
"The Jena Six were six black teenagers convicted in the beating of Justin Barker, a white student at Jena High School in Jena, Louisiana, on December 4, 2006. Barker was injured in the assault by the members of the Jena Six, and received treatment for his injuries at an emergency room. While the case was pending, it was often cited by some media commentators as an example of racial injustice in the United States, due to a belief that the defendants had initially been charged with too-serious offenses and had been treated unfairly."
Read more information about the Jena 6 in that and other online articles.

One of the chants aired in this clip was "What do we want? (Justice!) When do we want it? (Now!). That call & response chant is modeled after the 1960s chant "What do we want? (Freedom). When do we want it? (Now!).

Example #5: Why Moral Mondays Are Returning in 2014 | Forward Together

NC Forward Together Moral Movement Channel, Published on May 14, 2014

On May 19th, 2014, the Forward Together Movement will return to the North Carolina General Assembly for it's first Moral Monday of the 2014 Legislative

Example #6: Eric Garner protesters flood New York after grand jury clears NYPD officer in chokehold death case

Cnn News Rt, Published on Dec 3, 2014

Protests have started in several New York City locations after a US Grand Jury cleared an NYPD policeman of killing a black man last July. Eric Garner choked to death while being wrestled to the ground by the officer.
A number of "Black lives matter" protests have been held throughout the United States, in Europe, and elsewhere in the world.

Example #7: Marching for justice in the nation's capital

Reuters, Published on Dec 13, 2014, Thousands gather in Washington, D.C. for the "Justice for All" march - one of many protests across the country - to protest the killings of unarmed black men by law enforcement officers in the U.S. Nathan Frandino reports.

UPDATE: December 16, 2014

Browns' Andrew Hawkins explains why he wore a 'Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford' T-shirt at, Published on Dec 15, 2014
Here's an excerpt of Andrew Hawkins' response:
..."Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins gives a statement on why wore a “Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford” T-shirt during warm-ups and introductions before the game Sunday against the Bengals.

Hawkins stood by his decision to wear the T-shirt despite the president of Cleveland’s police union calling the gesture “pathetic” and demanding an apology.

“I was taught that justice is a right that every American should have. Also that justice should be the goal of every American. That’s what I think makes this country special,” Hawkins said Monday. “To me, justice means that the innocent should be found innocent. It means that those who do wrong should get their due punishment. Ultimately, it means fair treatment. So a call for justice shouldn’t offend or disrespect anybody. A call for justice shouldn’t warrant an apology.”

Hawkins insisted the T-shirt was not meant to be a blanket criticism of police officers, noting that he has close friends and family who are in law enforcement. But there are some “not-so-good” officers, and they need to be held accountable if they make poor decisions."...

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  1. I just read this tweet related to a blockade of the Oakland, California police department in which there is mention of protestors singing:

    Alyssa @alyssa011968
    singing-which side our u on, which side r u on- justice4 #MikeBrown is justice for us all- #OPDshutdown #BlacKOut

    11:31 AM - 15 Dec 2014

  2. hey just wanted to thank you for this fantastic resource and to comment that die-ins go back to (at least) ACT UP and other gay-rights/AIDS activist organizations who held them to call attention to the ignored AIDS plague in the 1980s. Many of the leaders with Black Lives Matter are LGBT and I think that idea comes into the BLM movement from that heritage.

    1. Greetings, si.

      Thank you for that important information. I appreciate your contribution to this post, and I appreciate the contributions that LGBT folks have made and are making in this nation and in the world.

      Best wishes!