The Civil Rights Movement Was More Than a String of Protests and Press Releases

13 Aug

Last week, Gawker published a piece called ‘Here’s Proof That Black Lives Matter Protests Are Working’. Its author, Andy Cush, devoted the better part of the article to highlighting new polling data indicating a significant upward trend in American recognition (including among whites) “that the fight for equal rights is not over.”

A heartening finding, and one undoubtedly owing mainly to the courageous work of Black Lives Matter. I’m proud to have played a small role in that work. And I intend to continue showing up and lending my support in whatever way I can.

The problem is the punchline Cush tacks on, which is both predictable and mistaken:

Those who argue that forceful demonstrations only serve to entrench people in the positions they’ve already taken are wrong. People are changing their minds. Just like it did for the suffrage movement 100 years ago or civil rights in the ‘60s, public protest is working in 2015. Now all we need is some meaningful policy change.

The analogy between the Civil Rights movement and BLM is a commonplace in journalistic commentary. But all too often, superficial history and editorial predilection for neat, emotionally compelling formulations combine to efface crucial–if less salient–features of the Second Reconstruction.

Just two days after Gawker declared that the BLM demonstrations have charted a course to the edge of “meaningful policy change”, The Root published an essay bearing the same premature triumphalism:

Some seem to think we’ve reached a point in time where the right to vote has replaced the need to disrupt the system—although the right to vote itself has yet to be secured. Rights are signed into law by the legislature, but history shows that the legislative pen moves in accordance with the pressure of organized protest and disruption in the streets.

This moment requires bold action and disruption of business as usual for the same reasons it was required in Birmingham in 1963.
If we are wrong now, King was wrong then. If King was right then, we are right now.

The author of this rousing homily, the film maker and activist Bree Newsome, boasts an impressive record of accomplishments that includes everyone’s favorite Mitt Romney parody rap video:

More recently Newsome made the news for staging a badass direct action to remove the Confederate Flag from the South Carolina State House “in the name of God.”

But if the affirmation closing her piece–”The movement lives.”–is correct, it points to something nascent and anemic.   

Black Lives Matter is, at the moment, a diffuse protest movement without solid objectives or strong organizational grounding. Even those closest to its founding express uncertainty about its concrete aims, insofar as these are still being developed and debated:

The point to me is to be able to dig into these questions as opposed to being prescriptive about what the answers are.

In the same way, we are living in political moment where for the first time in a long time we are talking about alternatives to capitalism…It is a political moment that’s opening up opportunities to envision a world where people can actually live in dignity. So whether that’s abolishing a criminal justice system that feeds off the labor and the lives of black and brown people, whether that’s abolishing an economic system that thrives on exploitation, poverty and misery: this is the time for us to not just dream about what could be, but also start to build alternatives that we want to see.
Quite honestly I’m not sure we can have both [policing and the valuing of black lives]…because the institution of policing is rooted in the legacy of catching slaves.

Adolph Reed, a Penn political scientist and veteran of left struggles dating back to the 60s, has been critical of young activists who see themselves as mature heirs to the Civil Rights Movement simply because they stage demonstrations against various iterations of racial injustice. Such identification reflects inadequate understanding of the achievements of the American black social movements of the 1940s-60s and how they were won: namely, through long term, disciplined organizing work rooted in tough-minded, adaptive political strategy. Moreover, the efficacy of these tactics was largely a function of unflagging commitment to serious, hard-wrought political objectives.

As Reed instructively points out in a 2009 essay,

 The postwar activism that reached its crescendo in the South as the “civil rights movement” wasn’t a movement against a generic “racism;” it was specifically and explicitly directed toward full citizenship rights for black Americans and against the system of racial segregation that defined a specific regime of explicitly racial subordination in the South. The 1940s March on Washington Movement was also directed against specific targets, like employment discrimination in defense production. Black Power era and post-Black Power era struggles similarly focused on combating specific inequalities and pursuing specific goals like the effective exercise of voting rights and specific programs of redistribution.

Whether or not one considers those goals correct or appropriate, they were clear and strategic in a way that “antiracism” simply is not. Sure, those earlier struggles relied on a discourse of racial justice, but their targets were concrete and strategic. It is only in a period of political demobilization that the historical specificities of those struggles have become smoothed out of sight in a romantic idealism that homogenizes them into timeless abstractions like “the black liberation movement”

I’ve bolded the striking repetition of these adjectives because it highlights a crucial deficiency holding back Black Lives Matter from the status of the 20th century social movements to which it is so often compared. This same deficiency hamstrung Occupy, which has also been congratulated for effecting a shift in national discourse (but, to my chagrin at least, little else of substance).

As early as the 1940s, well before the 60s’ demonstrations pointed out by Gawker, “a civil rights alliance emerged among liberals, leftists, and trade unionists, both black and white.” The Democratic Party formally endorsed civil rights in 1948 while the NAACP eroded the regime of segregation in the legal arena. Following the watershed 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling against segregated schools, the movement’s strategy of “disruption” became focused around enforcing the rights of black Americans. “It became clear that only the federal government could enforce the law, but national leaders acted only under duress.” Toward the goals of ending segregation and ensuring black enfranchisement, the “main question for civil rights activists became how to make the federal government take action to implement the law.” (Van Gosse, The Movements of the New Left, pp. 5-6)

Thus, in the words of historian John Patrick Diggins, “the southern antisegregation campaign was basically a moral protest entirely within the spirit of the law.” The movement was focused on implementing the desegregation mandated by the Brown decision and realizing the fundamental constitutional rights of black Americans enshrined in the 14th and 15th amendments, which for “a century the South had been able to circumvent”. (John Patrick Higgins, The Rise and Fall of the American Left, 238) 

It was a movement spearheaded by robust organizations like CORE and SNCC, which recruited activists of all colors to run voter registration drives, freedom schools, and strategically orchestrated civil disobedience. And it was not aimed primarily at abstractions like “white supremacy”, nor did it issue (as Occupy did and BLM chapters do) extensive and incongruously composed lists of vague demands, hastily ranging from trans* rights to immigration to the occupation of Palestine.

Politics involves real conflict between competing interests; political struggles have winners and losers. There are real enemies facing liberals, leftists, and underprivileged/marginalized groups of all stripes in the US. Jodi Dean concisely runs down some key recent victories of the forces of reaction:

In the United States, the right has worked actively to reframe the constitution according to a theory of the unitary executive, to reverse the steps taken toward racial equality by undercutting Brown v. the Board of Education, to facilitate the redistribution of wealth to the top one percent of the population, to undermine the Geneva conventions as well as habeas corpus, to empower unwarranted state surveillance of the population, and to install a narrow, extreme, version of fundamentalist Christian doctrine into scientific discussions of evolution and climate change so as to disable any supposition of a common world or reality for which we might share responsibility. These are political achievements.

Without clear, concrete goals, and strong organizational networks to coordinate strategies and sustain efforts toward the realization of those goals, a resistance movement is unlikely to make significant gains against the established order. The reversals faced by working people generally, and people of color particularly, over the past three decades call for the mobilization of politically serious social movements, ones that can win.

The statement appearing under the heading ‘Who We Are’ on the homepage of the Outside Agitators group, which disrupted Bernie Sanders’s rally in Seattle, closes with a quotation reading, “This ain’t your daddy’s civil rights movement”. For now, unfortunately, they are right.


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