As part of our Black History Month activities, the Venable Success Network (VSN) hosted a panel discussion on Black resistance in America, which is the theme of this year’s celebration. Moderated by William Lawrence, an associate in our DC office, the panel included Lynn French, executive director of Hope and a Home, Inc. and former member of the Black Panther Party, and Frank Smith, executive director, African American Civil War Memorial and Museum.
Frank began the discussion by sharing the defining moment that led to his involvement in the civil rights movement. It occurred in 1955 when a girl in his high school class brought in an edition of Jet magazine featuring a picture of Emmett Till’s mutilated body. (The 14-year-old Till had been brutally murdered during a visit to Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman.) As a young Black man growing up in the Jim Crow South, Frank realized that what had happened to Till could all too easily happen to him and other young men like him.
During his freshman year at Morehouse College, Frank joined the civil rights movement that was already under way and soon became an active member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He noted that many fellow members of SNCC were also motivated to join the movement after seeing Till’s photo in that magazine. Facing such a real threat to their lives meant that the fight for civil rights inevitably became all-consuming, and in 1962 Frank left Morehouse to begin working full-time for SNCC. What followed were many years of fighting to end segregation at lunch counters, on buses, in schools, and indeed across society, meaning that Frank and his fellow activists spent much of their younger lives either on picket lines or in jail.
The panelists also discussed how more modern movements like Black Lives Matter compare with the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Frank noted that many of the Black people who were activists in his day were middle class and college educated. But despite the wealth they had accumulated and the professional success they had achieved, there was no place in society for them. He used the example of Rosa Parks being asked to give up her seat on a bus as a case in point: the public space she had to move in was wholly controlled by white people, creating an urgency in the demands of the movement that has since lessened somewhat. But while there has been progress regarding segregation, young Black people today remain at risk of wrongful arrests and police violence. So, the core goal of the movement—to ensure all people are treated equally—has not changed.
Lynn, a sixth-generation Washington native, also spoke about getting involved in the fight for civil rights while she was still in high school. She said she frequently attended SNCC demonstrations and hugely admired their work to change the “unacceptable” status quo. Ultimately, she joined the Black Panther Party after being drawn to its 10-point program—the first principle of which was “We Want Freedom” or the power to determine one’s own destiny. As a young Black woman about to go to college, Lynn realized that her options were extremely limited and that she had little power over her own future. “You either became a schoolteacher, married someone who you hoped would take good care of you, or you cleaned someone’s house,” she explained, “and that just wasn’t how I envisioned my life.”
Lynn also discussed the work the Black Panther Party did in monitoring police stops and challenging police brutality, while noting that the problems in how Black communities are policed persist to this day. “Every decade or so, we see riots flare up because there’s never been real change,” she said, citing the example of George Floyd, who died after being held face down by several police officers in Minnesota, who knelt on his neck and back for more than nine minutes. Floyd’s murder did result in the prosecution and conviction of the officers who were involved in his arrest, largely because a bystander recorded the entire incident on their smart phone. But even though video evidence often exists these days, incidents of police brutality toward people of color appear to be proliferating, and convictions in such cases remain rare.
“This country is still wrestling with what citizenship means for a Black person,” Frank said, “and sadly that means that the struggle for equal rights is far from over.”
This program is part of Venable’s 2023 DEI Speaker Series. To learn more about Venable’s diversity initiatives, please click here.