Vanity Fair recently released its annual “New Establishment” list to coincide with its third-annual New Establishment Summit. Nestled between Spotify CEO Daniel Ek and three Snapchat stars was a photo of DeRay Mckesson, accompanied by this text:
Crowning Achievement: Transforming a Twitter hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter, into a sustained, multi-year, national movement calling for the end of police killings of African-Americans. He may have lost a bid to become Baltimore’s next mayor, but he is the leader of a movement.
My spirit has been unsettled ever since.
I have not been outwardly vocal about my distrust of and slight contempt for DeRay Mckesson—mostly because his coronation as "the leader of a movement" is something that we've seen throughout history. Men either step on the backs of women to snatch accolades and headlines; or, through their loud silence, they become complicit in erasing their names from history.
I lived and worked in Selma, Ala., for many, many years. During that time, one of my jobs was working for the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute. I created community programs, helped to coordinate the annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee festival celebrating the right to vote, and I curated exhibits. For the exhibit work, I had to do mountains of research. In fact, I researched for almost two years before a single picture was put on the walls.
For years I had heard firsthand accounts of movement stories, but I still wanted to be as accurate as possible when recounting history for thousands and thousands of eyes. If they were coming to the museum seeking the gospel truth, I wanted to make sure they left with a praise report.
One of the biggest stories I wanted to ensure was told with the richness and care it deserved was that of Mrs. Amelia Boynton Robinson. I knew Boynton Robinson and her family personally, and I knew of the huge part she played in the Selma movement, but her story had never been told with full accuracy. Disney made a movie called Selma Lord Selma, which blatantly distorted Boynton's role during that time in favor of highlighting Martin Luther King Jr.
Ava DuVernay's Selma remedied that on some level, but here is what you may not know:
Amelia Boynton—and her husband, Sam Boynton—were founders of the Dallas County Voters League, which had begun doing voter-registration work more than a decade before any member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee stepped foot in Selma.
King had been opposed to going into Selma, partly because he saw the groundwork laid by SNCC two years earlier as a failure, and he wanted to focus on places where they could achieve easier wins. Amelia Boynton wrote the letter that invited King to Selma in January 1965 and eventually changed his mind about choosing Selma as the hub for the next civil rights battle.
Diane Nash was a prominent figure and integral part of the strategy team that laid the ground work for the movement in Selma, yet you will barely hear her name mentioned.
Marie Foster helped to restart the DCVL in the 1960s and was one of the two women—the other being Amelia Boynton—up front on the line and who were badly beaten on Bloody Sunday.
I'm naming these women because unless you do some research, history has largely erased them or diminished their importance.
We hear all about King, John Lewis, Andrew Young and many other men—as we should. But what of these women? What of Fannie Lou Hamer or Ella Baker? If you study, you may know, but not because you were taught. We hear about Rosa Parks as a "symbol" of the civil rights movement, but not as a movement strategist. We know King cut his teeth in the movement with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but have you ever heard the name Johnnie Carr?
One of the things I discovered in my research was a woman named Autherine Lucy Foster from Marion, Ala. When Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed, Foster stood up in a mass meeting and said that they should march to Montgomery and lay his body on the steps of the Capitol building. Many people corroborated this story, which floored me because I had always heard that it was James Bevel who came up with the idea. Depending on whom you ask now, you will hear one or the other, or maybe both names.
We will never know the real truth because when a story is told long enough, it eventually becomes truth to folks. This is why Vanity Fair's list depicting Mckesson as not just "a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement"—as he is often erroneously described—but as the singular person who transformed the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag into a "sustained, multi-year, national movement … " is so wrong and disturbing.
This false designation not only follows a long history of erasing the work of black women in movement work; it is further evidence of how little white people actually care about the movement at all. For the most part, they seem to scroll through social media, see who's trending and run with it. Their anti-racist work is done.
As much as we have seen the three founders of the Black Lives Matter organization, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Opal Tometi—who actually started this hashtag and grew it from the web to an organization—this lie that this man is responsible for this work still prevails. And more so, the idea that one man alone is responsible for sparking a movement is ridiculous.
Cullors and Darnell L. Moore—in close collaboration with activists and organizers throughout North America—were behind activating folks to ride out to Ferguson, Mo. This revolutionary action effectively kicked off what we now refer to as the “Black Lives Matter Movement." Social and racial justice organizations like the Dream Defenders, which was co-founded by Umi Selah, and Black Youth Project—whose national director Charlene Carruthers has redefined leadership in a generation's consciousness—were doing on-the-ground work before the summer of 2014.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
I'm clear that groups like the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Dec. 12th, and 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement (the organization I grew up in) laid the groundwork for what is happening now—like our elders laid the groundwork for us. Also, now more than ever, when these young organizers are pushing back against the "single charismatic leader" model of movement-building, it is important for this type of willful ignorance and cultural negligence to be called out.
I have seen Mckesson and some of his people go on social media tirades about how they are not a part of Black Lives Matter. That is, until someone from the press says it—then there is no correction. If he won't do it, those who know better need to do so, or else, when this comes up in civics classes 20 years from now, there will be more lies and erasure happening.
We owe it to those who work on our behalf to tell their stories and honor their contributions. Many of these folks are not getting paid; but they are regularly harassed and threatened, demeaned and challenged. And much too often, the tireless work of women is the half that's never told. If we don't lift them up and protect them, no one else will. Trust me; I've seen it happen over and over and over again.
I don't expect white, mainstream publications like Vanity Fair to get this right. And I don't expect movement interlopers—as many people, including me, perceive Mckesson to be—to correct them. But I do expect us to be vocal and active when we see egregious things like this happening.
I know I will.
Tarana Burke is a writer, style blogger and girls advocate. She is working on a film about the trajectory of healing from sexual violence. Follow her on Twitter.