Protesters march in Phoenix. Courtesy Mass Liberation Arizona.

Arizona’s black activists press forward

Protesters march in Phoenix. Courtesy Mass Liberation Arizona.

By Jamar Younger

This summer’s protests supporting racial equity and opposing police brutality have served as an epiphany for many who have had to confront discrimination against people of color. But for Black activists in Arizona and across the country, it’s the continuation of a struggle that has persisted for generations.

Phoenix, Tucson and other cities across the state joined the rest of the country as protesters marched through the streets chanting “Black Lives Matter” and calling for justice after the deaths of George Floyd, Dion Johnson, Breonna Taylor and other unarmed Black men and women who died after encounters with the police.

Although some new leaders and movements have emerged with the recent wave of activism, each with their own perspective, the ultimate goal remains the same as their predecessors: dismantling systemic racism.

“I’m 27 and I have to do the same thing that my parents and grandparents had to do,” said Nissa Vibe, a core member of Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro. “The fact that we’re even asking for equal treatment is ridiculous. At this point, I feel it’s more than just equal treatment. It’s reparations, it’s compensation for the damage that has been done — because we’ve been asking for equal treatment for decades. We want what’s owed to us.”

Black Lives Matter has been at the forefront of the protests in Arizona and across the country, not only as one of the leading organizations behind the marches, but also as the rallying cry against police brutality and racism.

The group is part of a collective of social justice organizations in Arizona that wants to defund and abolish police, as well as address issues such as mass incarceration and gentrification while educating and mobilizing voters.

The leaders within these organizations have also implemented other strategies such as voter education, town halls, endorsements of candidates who support their views and discussion groups on topics such as Black trauma and white privilege.

“I think one of the ways we can be pushing to see change is having Black people making demands of folks to not only turn out in the streets as protesters, but to vote like Black lives matter,” said Lola N’sangou, lead organizer for Mass Liberation Arizona. N’Sangou participated in an Arizona PBS roundtable conversation on race, unrest and healing in June.

Mass Liberation Arizona has organized marches and rallies and has also engaged in other forms of activism such as partnering with lawmakers to introduce bills, endorsing candidates for county attorney in Maricopa and Pima Counties, pushing for more police accountability, creating voter guides, and hosting community training sessions.

Other organizations, such as the Black Mother’s Forum, are looking to protect the safety and welfare of Black children, especially boys, from the dangers of institutionalized racism and the school-to-prison pipeline.

“The foundation of our oppression is the desire and the intent that was put into the laws, that was put into policies, into structures, is to limit the movement of Black bodies. They’ve been trying to limit our movements since they brought our forefathers and foremothers over here from Africa,” said Janelle Wood, founder of the Black Mothers Forum.

The Black Mothers Forum, which celebrated its fourth year in August, has challenged Phoenix area school districts to implement anti-racism training for teachers. It is also calling for changes to other policies, including the fair treatment of Black students, who are more likely to be disciplined than their white counterparts. The organization was integral in pushing for the hiring of a director of equity and inclusion at the Chandler Unified School District, as well as an associate superintendent of equity, diversity and inclusion at the Arizona Department of Education.

The organization has been involved in the recent protests against police brutality, hosting a rally in early June that drew almost 400 people, and participating in other marches. Wood also sits on a Phoenix police reform committee.

The strategies of the newer movements have echoed the methods used by leaders who stood against injustice in past protests.

In previous decades, activists mobilized to push for civil rights, honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after he was assassinated, set up boycotts after state lawmakers refused to create a paid holiday in King’s name and pushed to address everything from environmental issues in low-income neighborhoods to building bridges across the Salt River to allow more accessibility for workers traveling from south Phoenix to Downtown.

“People need to be diligent. The fight is still there,” said Cloves Campbell Jr., publisher of the Arizona Informant, the state’s oldest Black newspaper founded by his father, Cloves Campbell Sr.

The elder Campbell, who was Arizona’s first Black state senator, led a march of about 6,000 people down Washington Street in Phoenix after King was assassinated in 1968. In the early 1970s, he was at the forefront of a movement to create a state holiday honoring King.

Although his early efforts were unsuccessful, support for the holiday gained national momentum after President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983, with the first observance three years later.

The Arizona House of Representatives proposed a bill in 1986, but it was narrowly defeated. Gov. Bruce Babbitt then issued an executive order declaring a paid state holiday to King, but the attorney general declared the proclamation illegal and Gov. Evan Mecham rescinded it after he took office in 1987.

This kicked off a struggle that stretched almost six years, punctuated by a series of boycotts, marches and legislative battles.
“We followed the strategy of the civil rights movement,” said Rev. Dr. Warren H. Stewart Sr., a Phoenix activist and pastor of First Institutional Baptist Church who led the movement in the 1980s and early ’90s to adopt a holiday to honor King. “If there is an injustice, you make it known. You try to get people to see the injustice. If the people don’t catch on and see it, then you begin to lobby powers that be. If that doesn’t move them to change the injustice, the next step is public protest. If that doesn’t work, then you move to the next step, which was to boycott. So, if you’re not listening to reason, we’re going to hit your pocketbook.”

The boycotts gained national attention as big-name performers such as Stevie Wonder refused to perform in Arizona, while U2 issued a statement denouncing Mecham’s actions. Tourism also suffered as the state lost a number of conventions because of resistance to the holiday.

In 1988, a rally at the Arizona State Capitol in support of the holiday attracted an estimated 15,000 people, according to the Arizona Republic.

Arizona eventually lost the 1993 Super Bowl, which was scheduled to be played in the Phoenix area, after voters rejected two ballot initiatives supporting the holiday.

That served as a turning point as business leaders showed more of a willingness to not only work with Stewart and other Black activists, but also to let them lead initiatives to garner support for the holiday, he said.

Arizona voters approved Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1992. The Super Bowl returned in 1996.

Campbell, who also took part in the boycott when he and a group of Black newspaper publishers from the West Coast canceled their convention, said today’s movements are more likely to effect change quicker than previous movements.

“As things have evolved, everything has happened a lot quicker than it in the past. Something that may have taken 10 years may now take 12-18 months,” he said.

Wood noted that today’s activists have grown up during a different era, with a Black president, and are more intolerant of any ideology that seeks to discriminate against people of color.

“They’re shutting it down. And with the police brutality and the way the police have controlled our movements, this group is willing to get in there and take the beatdown because they’re like ‘We’re not playing the game. We’re tired. We want you defunded. We want you removed’,” she said.

For N’sangou, who has lived in Phoenix since she was 8 years old, change will occur as more people become outraged by the repeated injustices.

“I think people are angry right now. I think people are fed up. I think they are seeing the world differently,” she said. “I do think the speed with which we see change is in direct proportion to the number of people demanding that change.”


Photos courtesy Mass Liberation Arizona. This story was originally published in the Fall 2020 issue of Arizona PBS magazine.

Both Cloves Campbell Jr. and Warren Stewart Sr. have appeared on “Arizona Horizon” and “Horizonte” many times over the years, as have Lola N’Sangou and leaders of Black Lives Matter and the Black Mothers Forum. Find their discussions of civil rights issues, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and related topics in our online archives.

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