Civil Rights: Then and Now
The civil rights movement in the 1960s is being reflected in today’s movements, but it appears history is repeating itself in the public perception of today’s Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. There are many more similarities and differences, but the main difference is the rise of social media and the globalization of social reform movements. The main similarity is that we in the 1960s were fighting the same issues then as the BLM is today. As a civil rights worker in Mississippi in 1964, we did not even have a telephone, much less a smart phone. We were isolated, except for the media (newspapers and TV news) and word of mouth networking. Today, social media is the networking.
According to “Mic”, a video on Facebook (facebook.com/MicMedia/videos), “Americans are as skeptical of Black Lives Matter today as they were of the civil rights movement in the ‘60s.” The site reports that 42 percent of young white Americans say they don’t support the BLM movement. “Black Lives Matter is often called a ‘civil rights’ movement. But to think that our fight is solely about civil rights is to misunderstand the fundamental aspirations of this movement,” Opal Tometi, a founder of BLM, told TIME (December 10, 2015). “Today, on International Human Rights Day, we recognize the current struggle is not merely for reforms of policing, anymore than the Montgomery Bus Boycott was simply about a seat on the bus. It is about the full recognition of our rights as citizens…”
How does that description differ from what happened in the 1960s? As a civil rights worker in the 1960s, I see significant differences in the scope of Black Lives Matter (BLM), and the 1960s groups, including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
In the 1960s, issues were pretty basic. We worked to secure the right to vote for all Americans. We fought for basic human rights, like education, jobs, freedom of association, freedom of speech, and all the civil rights enshrined in the first ten Amendments to our Constitution, the Bill of Rights. These basic rights were being openly denied people of color all around our country. We devised specific strategies to recognize and address those issues. We also strategized ways to make these rights a reality for the Black community. We also fought against the indiscriminate killing of black people, which gave a voice to today’s black community, via BLM. Interestingly, our basic strategy of nonviolence was based on the philosophy of Gandhi, an international figure.
Black Lives Matter goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes. It goes beyond the issues we fought for, and includes the BLM “guiding principals” of diversity, restorative justice, being unapologetically Black, globalism, Black women, collective value, transgender affirming, Black villages, Black families, empathy, queer affirming, loving engagement, and is international in scope. (BLACKLIVESMATTER.com) These BLM “guiding principals” are wider in scope than those of SNCC, CORE, NAACP, and SCLC. BLM embraces a wider spectrum of discrimination than we did in the 1960s.
One main reason is that the perception of discrimination has greatly broadened in the past fifty plus years. Today, discrimination includes disabilities, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, transgender status, lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals, virtually anyone who fails to conform to stereotypical gender norms. In addition, any physical, mental, or psychological trait may be a basis for a claim of discrimination. Persons who are very tall or short, burn victims, epileptic (I am in this category), dyed hair, tattoos, fat, thin, really any perceived trait that makes a person appear different from established societal norms are all subject to forms of discrimination. And these are the traits that make us unique individuals.
Sexual harassment, a form of discrimination and prominent in today’s news, was virtually unknown and unreported in past decades. Even today, most sexual harassment goes unreported.
David Brooks of the New York Times (How Cool Works in America Today) wrote, on July 25, 2017: “Embrace it or not, B.L.M. is the most complete social movement in America today, as a communal, intellectual, moral and political force. …to be radically aware and justifiably paranoid. It is to be cognizant of the rot pervading the power structures.”
During the Civil Right Movement in the 1960s, the fight was against institutional racism that plagued our country. There were actual laws that oppressed Blacks and other minorities during this time. In addition to those de jure laws that made discrimination legal in many states, the societal norms also supported a segregationist mindset. It was socially and politically acceptable to discriminate. To act or speak against those societal norms was social suicide. If you were a business owner, and you served the Black community, it was also economic suicide.
The segregated education system in the South was a great example of this. Brown v. Board of Education found segregation unconstitutional and everyone could see what the issue was whether they agreed or disagreed because it was tangible evidence. In the 1950s and 1960s, societal norms in the South enabled white citizens to discriminate with open hostility toward their Black neighbors.
The right to vote was similarly denied to members of the Black community in the millennia before 1965. Millions of Black people were denied the right to vote by Jim Crow laws that prescribed literacy tests and poll taxes. This changed in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Unfortunately, in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court stripped a key section of enforcement from this law, and most southern states immediately passed laws that restricted voter registration opportunities and actual voting. Unfortunately, President Trump is moving to purge voter rolls via the appointment of Kris Kobach to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. (The New York Times, Ari Berman, June 13, 2017)
On Aug. 28, 1963, I traveled to Washington, D.C., along with half a million other people, for the March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom. It rallied thousands of Americans to come together and peacefully protest the injustices that blacks and minorities were facing at the time. This day was most memorable for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Dr. King was a charismatic leader of his SCLC, and his historic speech set the tone for the next decade of the struggle for civil rights. But the members of other civil rights groups, most notable SNCC and CORE, engaged in a participatory democratic system that led them to become the most active and effective civil rights organizations.
Core activists of the Black Lives Matter movement have insisted on a group-centered model of leadership, rooted in ideas of participatory democracy. The movement has modeled itself after SNCC and CORE. This type of organization, where everyone has a voice, is often slow and cumbersome, but in the end, the direction of the body represents every voice that was heard.
The similarities of BLM and the civil rights groups of the 1960s share much of their focus, particularly on discrimination as it was known in the 1960s, and as it has grown today. In addition, the basic governing structure, then and now, is one where the goal is to hear every voice, hear every point of view, and consider everyone as an individual. BLM and SNCC, CORE, NAACP, and SCLC are as alike as the decades separating them will allow.