Elected officials. Businesses. Soccer moms. Derrick Quarles isn’t selective when it comes to spreading the message of Black Lives Matter. He’ll chat with anyone to build bridges, create movement, and stir change. The social justice activist founded the Upstate BLM chapter five years ago, and the 33-year-old’s passion for a united world has taken him far from his boyhood home in Mauldin to some of the nation’s hot spots for racial protests. He yearns for the day he can just sit and relax.

You’re working on your doctorate of philosophy from Jackson State University in Mississippi. Did your parents push education? My mom dropped out of high school at 15. She went back at 22 to get her G.E.D., and then to a technical college, and now she holds two bachelor’s degrees. She never had to tell us; she showed us. We watched her struggle to raise six boys and go to school.

Did your family talk about racism, or encourage activism? Not really. It wasn’t really impressed upon me. Growing up, I did a lot of reading, a lot of research, writing, and self-reflection. I used to watch Court TV, now truTV. That’s all I watched. A lot of police and crime shows. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was shaping my future as far as seeking justice for those I felt might have been done wrong. I didn’t look at skin color. In fact, we never discussed racism. I didn’t see it a whole lot until I became an adult.

Was there one event that made you spring into action? My sophomore year at Claflin University, Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida, and I decided to get more involved in the community. I went to Florida and was there 31 days. We stayed at the statehouse, slept on the floor, met with legislators. It was all brand-new to me, but it was something that I was placed on Earth to do. I was ready to leave a couple of times, but the organizers would say they needed my voice. Those were some of the greatest days of my life because it helped me understand where I would end up in terms of social justice activism. I knew I could no longer sit idle.

Post-college, you’ve built your career in politics and education. You currently serve part-time as a senior policy advisor to the South Carolina Senate. I talk with Senator Karl Allen every day. He’s a mentor. I have an affinity for helping students get through college, because for me, it wasn’t an easy experience. A year ago, I was director of students at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, but God was telling me to come home. I pray a lot and look to God for spiritual guidance. I knew God would see me through, and I would have an opportunity to continue to do this work and take care of my family. This is the work God has ordained me to do.

Tell us more about that. I always knew I would do ministry. I just didn’t know what kind of ministry. This is my ministry: social justice work. It’s not necessarily standing at a pulpit, but helping people use their voice—people who don’t realize they have a voice. I’ve always wanted to help people.

Black Lives Matter’s voice has grown in recent months with new members of all colors. Do you fear some will treat involvement as a trend? I don’t think it’s a fad. I think people really want to be allies and help. When you see other races at a rally, it’s a tremendous help, because we know we are not stepping alone. We know there are people who have wanted to say something for a very long time, but they needed that extra push of encouragement. George Floyd was that encouragement.

You helped establish the Black Lives Matter chapter in Ferguson, Missouri. You’ve demonstrated on Chicago’s South Side. How would you describe Greenville’s efforts to promote equal rights? I think Greenville has been more consistent in being vocal about issues that are important to people who have been victimized either by police, the hospital system, or evicted from Tent City. It’s more peaceful. We tend to be more organized, which is easier to do when you have smaller crowds of people. It’s always been my intention to keep the protests peaceful. I don’t want anybody to be hurt, especially when you have people who have come to express themselves for justice. People who may want to come and burn stuff up and antagonize? I’m not okay with that.

I’m a person. I see color and I recognize color, but I don’t allow color to dictate how I treat people, nor how I respect people. 

 

Does your family want this? No. My parents do not like that I do this. My family’s been threatened. I’ve been threatened. We’ve had to move several times. My mom wants me to focus on school, but it’s not that simple for me. I’ve always contemplated the possibility of going to jail, and even the possibility of being killed.

A lot of issues you champion, including affordable housing, are issues various activists have presented for decades locally. Are things getting better? Things have definitely not gotten better. Black people are becoming more independent and more successful and not relying on government as much as they have in the past. But there are still people who need that help. And it’s not just black people. It’s all people. When we say Black Lives Matter, we’re not saying anyone else doesn’t matter. We’re just saying that we matter, too.

What do you want people to know about you? I’m a person. I see color and I recognize color, but I don’t allow color to dictate how I treat people, nor how I respect people. If an officer pulls me over tomorrow, my heartbeat will go triple-time, and I’ll wonder will this be my last encounter? Will this be the last time talking to my family? I want people to understand that this is the reality that I live in as an educated black man.

Photography by Paul Mehaffey.