Rev. Sekou on Today’s Civil Rights Leaders: “I Take My Orders From 23-Year-Old Queer Women”

A leading activist pastor speaks about the emerging face of civil rights leadership in 21st century America.

Rev. Sekou and professor Cornel West in Washington, D.C., in 2005. Photo by Matthew Bradley / Flickr.

For three months, Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou was on the ground in Ferguson, participating in daily protests and leading trainings in nonviolent civil disobedience. That work continues to this day: Sekou was arrested for the third time on Monday, July 13, while protesting the recent police shooting of Brandon Claxton in St. Louis.

The reverend, a St. Louis native, is a writer, filmmaker, organizer, and pastor. He began his ministry at the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church, where Michael Brown’s funeral was held last August. 

“Martin Luther King ain't coming back. Get over it.”

Rev. Sekou’s frank discussions about black America’s fight for racial justice have gained him notoriety across the country.

“Martin Luther King ain’t coming back. Get over it,” said Rev. Sekou during a recent lecture at Warner Pacific College in Portland, Oregon. “It won’t look like the civil rights movement. It’s angry. It’s profane. If you’re more concerned about young people using profanity than about the profane conditions they live in, there’s something wrong with you.”

When we heard that Rev. Sekou would be visiting the Seattle area in early July to keynote a Fellowship of Reconciliation conference, we asked him to visit the YES! office and share his experiences with the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson and Baltimore.

The following is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation with Rev. Sekou.

YES!: Tell us about what you experienced during your time with the protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Who do you see leading the movement? 

Sekou: In the last decade, particularly in the age of Obama, the vast majority of the black leadership has been the punditry class—those of us, and I am guilty of this, who are on television, who write books, who give lectures, but don’t necessarily experience on-the-ground direct confrontation with the state.

Now the leadership that is emerging are the folks who have been in the street, who have been tear-gassed. The leadership is black, poor, queer, women. It presents in a different way. It’s a revolutionary aesthetic. It’s black women, queer women, single mothers, poor black boys with records, kids with tattoos on their faces who sag their pants. 

These folks embody intersectionality. Particularly in Ferguson, solidarity with Palestine was never a question. More than 250 Palestinians marched with us, and the local Palestinian solidarity committee was with us from day one.

And there is a suspicion of the state. As a result of that suspicion, a lot of folks have turned to cooperative models—talking about buying land, forms of entrepreneurship, a lot of discourse about self-healing—because there is such a disdain and distrust for the state.

YES!: It sounds like people are creating the kind of world they want and not waiting for the state to act. Is that what you’re seeing?

Sekou: It hasn’t even been a year since the events in Ferguson, so we don’t know. And I am not a leader in this movement; I am a follower. I take my orders from 23-year-old queer women.

"I take my orders from 23-year-old queer women."

But when you look at Baltimore, people like Rev. Heber Brown III, the leaders of A Beautiful Struggle, and the leaders of The Algebra Project, they’ve begun looking at how we feed people. In the early days of the Freddie Gray rebellion, we saw one church—Reverend Eric King’s church—feed 2,000 people in one day. There’s been lots of self-care—which is part of the black liberation struggle that has always been about black self-determination, black self-respect, and black dignity.

This also may reflect a recognition that the state will never provide anything for us. Personally, I think the state is going to have to shake some of their resources loose, given the role it has played in the creation of poverty and the way it has maintained a certain form of hegemony over black lives.

YES!: Where do you see opportunity for things to shift in our society? Where could the movement make a real difference?

Sekou: Some say that we need to move from protest to politics, we need to move from protest to power. That’s a false dichotomy.

There are real possibilities in the power of a militant, nonviolent civil disobedience that engages young people and folks who have felt alienated by traditional means of grievance-bearing—whether that be electoral politics, traditional civil rights organizations, or the mammoth nonprofit industrial complex.

If you look at Ferguson or Baltimore, most of the organizations that have emerged are new formations: Millennial Activists United, Hands Up United, Lost Voices, the Don’t Shoot Coalition. They have had no space inside a church, in the NAACP, or in the Urban League. 

Paraphrasing Martin Luther King: Social movements set the climate. Elections, public policy, and legislation are thermometers. They measure it. We got two new black city council folks in Ferguson. They are not necessarily radicals, but they are there because of the people who have been in the street. There’s been a fight over a community civilian review board for the police in St. Louis, a 15-year struggle. We just passed it.

I think something has happened that can open a new radical space.

Ferguson is the longest rebellion against state violence in the history of the country. It’s secondary only to the Montgomery bus boycott, and six months longer than the Selma campaign. So that’s what we’re dealing with. And there isn’t one leader. It’s several leaders.

YES!: Why Ferguson? There is police violence against black folks happening all over the country.

Sekou: Well I’m from St. Louis, and even I don’t know.

I think a couple things produced Ferguson. My family began to migrate to St. Louis in 1952 from Arkansas, fleeing the Jim Crow South and the arbitrary violence. A lot of black folks came from Arkansas and Mississippi. The highest number of lynching per capita took place in that part of the country. That’s something in the memory of people who have migrated to St. Louis.

They left Michael Brown’s body in the street for four and a half hours. That’s too much. It was right before school started, and there was a bouncy castle across the street from where he was lying. So there were 5-year-olds saying, “Mike’s laying in the street!”

“Ferguson is the longest rebellion against state violence in the history of the country.”

They brought out police dogs before they brought an ambulance. They tried to put his body in the trunk of a car. The community was like, “You put that body in the trunk of a car and ain’t nobody leaving here alive.” So they put his body in an SUV. That was undignified.

And when young people tried to find answers, they were met with tanks and tear gas. It was too much.

If you look at the history of slave rebellions, a lot of them began after they buried a child. Adult slaves are like, “We can take it, but you can’t do this to our babies.” So I think that’s the difference, the high level of disrespect.

Hands Up

YES!: Do you see a role for the churches now?

Sekou: We have a romantic view of the church. In Montgomery there are about 100 or so black churches—less than a dozen participated in the bus boycott. In Birmingham, there are upward of 500, and less than a dozen participated in the marches.

I think a church has a role to play, but this idea of the Church, with a big C, I think is obsolete. The young people in the street disturb our religious respectability and sensibility. Queer woman, single moms, pants sagging, tattoos—it disrupts the very character that the church presents to the world. I’m not terribly hopeful for the church. I think queer, black, poor women are the church’s salvation. They don’t need to get saved. The church needs to get saved.

YES!: I saw a brilliant story yesterday about a young African American Lutheran minister in a predominantly white church. After Charleston, she expected the service people to talk about the shooting. They didn’t. Nobody mentioned it. She said it was an epiphany for her about her place in that space and the indifference of this almost all-white church.

Sekou: Martin Luther King has this famous statement that the most segregated hour in the country is on Sunday morning. That segregation comes out of the fact that, first, black folks were not allowed to worship with white folks. And second, our worship styles and traditions are different.

”Queer, black, poor women are the church's salvation.“

There’s a certain existential weaponry that we get from our music, our time together, our space. The church is where we matter. You might be scrubbing white folk’s floors all day long, but on Sunday morning you’re sister so and so. I’m not necessarily concerned about the segregation of churches. I prefer to worship with folks that worship the way I worship.

And this is me stealing Chris Crass’ line—he says that the task of white churches is not about how many people of color they have. It’s what blow are they striking at white supremacy.

YES!: Do you see a possibility of a common cause between poor black folks and poor white folks? Or does the movement have to be a separate thing?

Sekou: I don’t know. I think in times of crisis people retreat to what they know. There’s definitely going to be more Balkanization. In our movement, there is a deep concern with black-only spaces because folks are trying to protect themselves and survive.

There has been some cross-racial organizing throughout history. Martin Luther King organized the poor peoples’ campaign, but when he was killed the campaign fell apart. You get a little of it with Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition. Those coalitions are usually weak and don’t hold well.

What has emerged now is something that definitely looks different. There may be the potential of a multiracial alliance that’s black-led.

But this generation has experienced the disintegration of its community. Cornel West talks about the catastrophes visited on black communities, whether it be gentrification, the prison-industrial complex, the new Jim Crow, demonization of welfare mothers, the shredding of the welfare state, the fact that somebody black or brown dies every other day in America at the hands of the police, the exponential increase in access to weapons, or the limited access to education and health care.

You have millennials who saw at all of that and said: “We are going to love our way out.” Which echoes Toni Morrison’s book, Beloved: “Love your hands, love your flesh, ‘cause out yonder, they don’t love your flesh.” That’s what we’re talking about. (Editor’s note: You can find the full passage here.)

One of the recent actions was black women, naked in San Francisco, presenting their bodies as living sacrifices. They were saying, “We love our flesh.” That’s a Beloved moment. This generation has made a commitment to love its way out.

YES!: What do you think is coming next?

Sekou: I have no idea. They’ll keep killing us, and we are going to continue resisting. I know that.

They'll keep killing us, and we are going to continue resisting.

A watershed moment in the history of the nation is taking down the American Swastika. That’s all it is—the Confederate flag is anti-American. It is a treasonous flag, and we were holding space for it because it represents the sensibility of a large swath of the country that is not just simply in the South.

That’s also what’s unique about this moment: Everything is up for debate. The conversation I’m hearing around this country is not about police reform, it’s about the very nature of policing. Do we honestly need them in our communities? There are folks developing programs so that the police are the last person you call—not the first.

I don’t know what comes next. I just know that the people are going to continue to resist, and it’s a great moment to be alive.