Under One Roof, Divergent Views On 'Black Lives Matter'

Dec 23, 2015
Originally published on December 26, 2015 11:45 am

From Ferguson, to Baltimore, to Charleston, racially charged violence and protests dominated much of the news in 2015. While much of the country watched these events unfold, they had the deepest resonance in the cities at the center of them — going beyond the news and filtering into into family living rooms and kitchens.

That's true of Liz Alston's family in Charleston, S.C. Six months ago, a white supremacist opened fire in a historically black Emanuel AME church in her city. Nine African-Americans were killed. Liz is the historian at that church, which is affectionately called Mother Emanuel — she's a self-described "political guru," and the 74-year-old matriarch of her family.

It's a family that is deeply political — all of them have voted in every presidential election they could. But, this campaign season, the political disagreements aren't necessarily about a specific presidential candidate, but, rather, a specific issue – the rise of protests around issues of race and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

BLM is a loosely organized group of young activists calling for racial justice; it sprung up after a series of high-profile police shootings.

And, for Liz, BLM is a confusing new force. Within her family, there's nearly unanimous agreement that racism is still a problem, but there's also plenty of disagreement about BLM and its protest tactics.

One Saturday afternoon this fall, Liz spent the afternoon with some of her relatives, as they often do, discussing politics, race, power, and protests at her home in the historic neighborhood of Old Charleston about a mile from Emanuel AME.

Liz's opinions are different from the younger folks in her family, including 22-year-old LaCurtia Brown. As she introduces her, Liz is having trouble finding the words to describe LaCurtia's generation.

The afternoon began with presidential politics. (Everyone in this family supports Hillary Clinton in her 2016 campaign — with varying degrees of enthusiasm).

Quickly, though, the conversation veered toward the protesters who interrupted a Clinton campaign event in October at a historically black college in Atlanta.

LaCurtia has never attended a protest rally herself, but she agrees with the activists and understands why they're targeting Clinton now.

Ninety-five-year-old Richard Fields (known in the family as "The Judge") interrupted to politely admonish the young generation. Decked out in a matching vest, jacket, and hat, he said the Clinton protesters were being disrespectful and showing off.

Some family members awkwardly shifted their weight on the sofa, but nobody publicly disagreed with The Judge. He's not biologically related to anyone in the room but he's like an adoptive father to Liz and her husband Albert, and has been close to the family for more than half a century. They give deference to him. After all, he's an icon, not just in Liz's family, but in the city. Born in the segregated South, The Judge was an attorney during the Jim Crow era who became the highest ranking black judge in Charleston.

Liz sort of agreed with The Judge. "I think [the activists] are pushing the wrong [candidate]. You know, Hillary already agrees with you, so why make her life difficult?" she asked.

Liz was a student of the Civil Rights movement. She went to college in the '60s, protested for equal rights, and even got arrested. So, initially, she said she felt a kinship with BLM and wanted to support them.

But, now, Liz feels like BLM doesn't have a clear end goal.

Liz is effusive and opinionated, but also circumspect.

She's attended Emanuel AME for 47 years. A painting of the church hangs on the living room wall, gazing down on her family - a constant reminder of the deadly shooting.

Liz says "hidden racism" is still alive, but, she also thinks times are changing. She points out that compared to the '60s, police and politicians in South Carolina are now responding to violence against black people with "swift justice." She mentions the arrest of a white police officer in North Charleston for fatally shooting Walter Scott, a black man.

She also points to the fact that the Emanuel 9 shooting was immediately referred to as a "hate crime," and that the Confederate flag on the capitol grounds was taken down shortly thereafter.

In some ways, perhaps the generational fissures within Liz's family are a uniquely South Carolinian response toward BLM and race. Liz herself says her home state "dances to the tune of a different drummer."

And, it's true - in some ways, the state is unusually quiet about these issues. Despite the shooting at Mother Emanuel and the killing of Walter Scott by police, there were no wide-scale protests akin to Ferguson or Baltimore.

But, for recent college grad LaCurtia, the quiet disguises the tension.

In front of her older relatives, LaCurtia hesitated to defend BLM; but, after The Judge left, as the rest of the family filtered into the kitchen, she went into to the backyard where she spoke more candidly.

LaCurtia said she's frustrated by the racism she's witnessed as she's grown older and by the "lack of training" cops demonstrate in dealing with everyday people. And, for her, this isn't abstract, it's personal. Here she describes an encounter her cousin had with the police after being pulled over for speeding.

"It happens, I guess," LaCurtia said with an exasperated sigh.

She thinks the relationship cops have with the black community needs to change — that's why she supports BLM.

Then, she lowered her voice to explain how "some older people" in her family don't understand that the movement is about more than protesting.

The youngest family member, 12-year-old Serra Williams, doesn't have a concrete idea of what BLM means, but she does take it seriously. Serra goes to a predominantly white school, and she said one day last year she was riding the bus when it passed a police officer and bunch of her classmates tried to rile him up.

Serra's mom, Sherrie Snipes-Williams, 47, chimed in to defend the intentions of the younger activists. She said the BLM movement is "relevant" for today's culture, but not as effective as it could be. Rather than protest, activists should "use their wits and their intelligence to attack an issue in a very different way."

Traditionally, some politicians have built relationships in the black community with the leaders of the civil rights movement or the NAACP. But, Black Lives Matter has upended that old-school hierarchy. Personally, Sherrie sees this cultural moment as an opportunity for young black folks to change the conversation.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Earlier this year, a white man shot and killed nine black parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. Liz Alston is the historian at that church and she invited NPR's Asma Khalid to spend an afternoon with the Alston family as they hashed out issues of race, politics and power.

LIZ ALSTON: Well, come on in. These are members of my family.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Liz Alston is the 74-year-old matriarch in this house.

ALSTON: And my sister, Alfredia.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hey, Judge.

RICHARD FIELDS: Hey, darling, how you doing?

KHALID: Liz's family is deeply political. They voted in every presidential election they could. But this campaign season, the political disagreements are not about a specific presidential candidate but rather a specific issue - the rise of racial protests. For Liz, there are especially deep divides across generations, though she struggled to find the right label for her great niece, 22-year-old LaCurtia Brown.

ALSTON: She's millenninum (ph), right? Millenninum.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Millennial.

ALSTON: Millenninum?

LACURTIA BROWN: Millennium.

ALSTON: Millennia.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: M. I-U-M.

BROWN: M. Millennium.

(LAUGHTER)

KHALID: As the family gathered around the sofa, the conversation began with presidential politics. Everyone here supports Hillary Clinton. But quickly the talk turned toward the protesters who had interrupted a Clinton campaign event in October at a historically black college in Atlanta.

BROWN: I think protesting is harmless.

KHALID: That's LaCurtia Brown. She says she's never attended a protest rally herself, but she agrees with the activists and understands why they're targeting Clinton now.

BROWN: They just want a voice. They want to be heard, you know? So when she's not in office, you know, she'll hear the people more

KHALID: But 95-year-old Richard Fields gently admonishes her. He's known in the family simply as The Judge. And on this day, he's decked out in a matching vest, jacket and hat. He says the Clinton protesters were being disrespectful.

FIELDS: You got this lady who is about to become president of the United States and you're disturbing 1,000 people, 1,500 people by Black Lives Matters. Everybody there believes black life matters. But all the life matters, and you included in all lives. If you want to be special, nobody cares about you.

KHALID: Some family members awkwardly shift their weight on the sofa, but nobody speaks up. After all, The Judge is an icon. He was born in the segregated South and went on to become one of the highest ranking black judges in Charleston. But for Liz, the situation isn't so black and white. Black Lives Matter is a confusing new force.

ALSTON: I feel a kind of kinship for the Black Lives Matter.

KHALID: Liz was a student of the Civil Rights Movement. She went to college in the '60s, protested for equal rights and even got arrested.

ALSTON: In the past, we've had to fight for these things because of the resistance of white America.

KHALID: But she says these days, it feels like the activists don't have a clear goal

ALSTON: I may be being a little bit condescending, but they'll have to find something to do that we have not done.

KHALID: Liz has attended Emanuel AME for 47 years. As she talks, a painting of the church hangs on the living room wall, gazing down at her family. She says racism is still a problem, but she also thinks times are changing.

ALSTON: All of the things that happened from the Confederate flag, the governor jumped on it or when the killing of the Emanuel nine, the chief of police right away say it's a hate crime. So that the reasons for marching just simply went down the drain.

KHALID: After the political talk died down, Liz invited the family to have some sweet tea, red rice and collard greens. Twenty-two-year-old LaCurtia went into the backyard and spoke more candidly.

BROWN: I think that what they don't understand as older people is that Black Lives Matter is not just about protesting. You know, it's all over media as a hashtag. It's just a message to examine the injustice among black people.

KHALID: She thinks the relationship cops have with the black committee needs to change. Black Lives Matter has upended the old-school civil rights hierarchy, but what that will mean is unclear. Even within one family, not everyone agrees. Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.