What Does Culture Look Like When #BlackLivesMatter?

Justin Laing

This past January I was preparing for a youth education and empowerment program I work with in Pittsburgh called the Omega Dr. Carter G. Woodson Academy, and the research I was doing revealed some fascinating connections between the civil rights movement and philanthropy. This year has also been marked by the fiftieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and a national initiative to provide free admission for schoolchildren to see the movie Selma, which was released in December and chronicled the protests that led to the passage of that 1965 legislation. Meanwhile, artists, culture workers, and activists continue to impress upon me the critical implications of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and why it is one of our biggest national issues. So, now feels like an important time to reflect on the relationships among institutional philanthropy, my work as a program officer, and social justice movements led by African Americans.

Some historical background on the civil rights movement and philanthropy can be found in David Garrow’s Bearing the Cross, where there is a brief account of a foundation that withheld payment to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) from the end of 1962 through the beginning of 1963, due to failure to meet grant conditions. This took place immediately before the Project Confrontation campaign was scheduled to begin in Birmingham, Alabama. Because the funds were not released, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was forced to meet in person with foundation staff and to acknowledge that the voter registration drives the SCLC was supposed to conduct in a number of communities in the South were not really happening. Wait. What? Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was called to account by a program officer? Yes.

I came across more of the backstory of that meeting in two other sources, which piqued my interest even further. According to Charity, Philanthropy, and Civility in American History, a compilation of essays on the history and social impact of American philanthropy, and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s report “Freedom Funders: Philanthropy and the Civil Rights Movement,” Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy convened a group of foundation leaders in 1961 and asked them to put money into an initiative called the Voter Education Project. His idea was to encourage civil rights organizations like the SCLC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the NAACP to turn their attention to voter registration rather than the direct-action strategies such as sit-ins and freedom rides. His argument to those groups was that voter registration would have a bigger impact on discriminatory policies than smaller local efforts such as sit-ins. However, writers in both the book and the report contend that much of the Kennedy administration’s motivation was to take pressure off the federal government to provide protection for the activists, because providing that protection would alienate Southern white voters.

These anecdotes bring interactions among government, institutional philanthropy, program officers, and the civil rights movement into focus in a way that is troubling. They appear to illustrate an attempt to coerce civil rights leaders to alter either their behavior or their theory of change. Yet, maybe most troubling is that these anecdotes show white-led institutions that are ostensible friends and allies of black people unwilling to employ police power to defend black lives. What message might this have sent to White America? To Black America?

From perhaps a more practical philanthropic standpoint, the stories also demonstrate the limitations of the project support that was provided when general support was needed. One can imagine that project/program dollars were being stretched to cover direct action like sit-ins as well as voter registration drives, reducing the chances of success for both. Maybe this is why the program officer who met with Dr. King had seen so little activity on the project he was funding. I wonder how he felt as he spoke with Dr. King. Did he feel bamboozled that the work wasn’t happening? Was he aware of the difficult position Dr. King was in regarding the SCLC’s less funded direct-action work and the voter registration work that the foundation was supporting? Did he think about the different burdens that he, as a program officer, and Dr. King, as an activist, were bearing in the work to make a better America? Did he acknowledge his own privilege in the conversation?

Fast-forward fifty years, and we see the #BlackLivesMatter movement. We learn the names of African Americans who died at the hands of police on seemingly a weekly basis, as organizers share what is happening on the ground and circulate the names of the victims on social media: #SandraBland, #FreddieGray, #MichaelBrown, #YvetteSmith. Many think of “culture” as more than the humanities and something more akin to all that we think and do. I have even heard culture defined as “the way things get done around here.” This sense of culture resonates with me and was how I was taught to think about it as a black studies major, and it leads me to think about what actions we take as program officers who have the word culture in our titles when a significant portion of the population is adamantly pointing out that racism, more than preventing all citizens from having equal protection under the law, is placing citizens at risk from the law. What does this reality say about our culture?

While the death of unarmed African Americans at the hands of the police is not new, I see a transition in this story from one where African Americans are not provided police protection when conducting direct action against racism to one where African Americans’ direct action is about the police themselves. What does this say about the state of our “culture,” that is, the state of our thought and behavior as a national community? To get a sense of the scale of crisis, this year more than five hundred people have died at the hands of police in our country. I have been following the research of @ShaunKing on Twitter, and he pointed out a pretty shocking article. To get a sense of the severity of the situation in an international context, the Guardian estimates that in the past twenty-four years there have been fifty-five fatal police shootings in England and Wales, and there were fifty-nine fatal police shootings in the first twenty-four days of 2015 in the United States. Even if we take into consideration differences in the countries’ sizes, this is still a staggering statistical difference.

What position does institutional philanthropy take on this issue? We know that foundations are much better prepared today to support culture on stage than we were at the time of the Voter Education Project, and this is no small accomplishment. But what happens when black cultural expression shows up in political theater or in the streets, as black lives are threatened or ended? Many view these as the grandest stages, and here there are no shortages of audiences. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is challenging a culture where black lives can be taken while video cameras record and it is difficult to even bring officers to trial. What could be the role of arts and culture funders in this context?

While there are no pat answers, the good news is that we have philanthropic voices and models we can follow. There are a variety of examples of young African Americans and Latinos in the field offering their perspectives in public forums and supporting #BlackLivesMatter. This year the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy held a webinar to hear from some of these voices. They included Alicia Garza, one of the founders of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Tynesha McHarris of the Brooklyn Community Foundation, Rev. Starsky Wilson of the Deaconness Foundation, and Zachary Norris of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

Arts and culture have been an important part of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. How can more of us working in arts and culture philanthropy catch up? Let’s ask those artists and funders already working in this space.