The Civil Rights Movement and the Sixties

I am visiting Wake Forest University today, mainly to speak at the Program for Leadership and Character. I will also visit a course on political activism in the 1960s. There, I’m planning to contribute a few remarks about the influence of the Civil Rights Movement.

By the time student radicalism became common on predominantly white college campuses in the Sixties, the Civil Rights Movement had already been underway for almost a decade. It was an inspiring model for Americans from the center-left to the far left. Specifically, about 1,000 mostly white, Northern students participated in Freedom Summer 1964, registering Black voters in Mississippi. As Doug McAdam shows, they returned radicalized by direct exposure to militant white supremacy. The summer changed them in many other ways; for instance, they turned bluejeans into the unofficial uniform of students in the Sixties by imitating rural Black organizers, who wore denim. Alumni of Freedom Summer became disproportionately influential in the left movements that followed. They also tended to exit the Civil Rights Movement itself–for a variety of reasons, including (appropriate) discomfort about their role in a Black-led struggle.

We misread the Civil Rights Movement if we assume that it had a coherent, centralized leadership structure–epitomized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.–and a consistent message, as expressed in his “I Have a Dream Speech.” It was always a hotbed of debate and difference and always had many leaders. These facts would have been more evident to young radicals in the Sixties than they are today, because the King myth had not yet formed. However, young radicals also observed some actual features of the Civil Rights Movement that they increasingly disputed as the decade progressed, and these matters remain contested today.

First, the Movement developed and honored leaders: not one, and not just the Big Six (James Farmer, Philip Randolph, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, John Lewis, and King), but a cadre or layer of leaders across the country, including women. Leadership itself became more controversial after 1964 or so.

Second, the Movement treated the government as a target of demands. The goal was almost always to negotiate with government officials, from the police commissioner of a Southern city to Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daly to LBJ. The Movement eschewed two alternatives. It could have sought to become the government by winning elections or fomenting a revolution, or it could have shunned the government as illegitimate or un-reformable. Some Black leaders of the time advocated each of those strategies, but not the core leaders of the Movement. They wanted to be independent of the government and to influence it actively. The two alternatives (replacing or avoiding the government) became more popular in the student left as the Sixties enfolded.

Third, the Movement used existing social capital: organizations and associations. Churches were most important, but unions, businesses, newspapers, colleges, and fraternities and sororities also contributed. The genius of the original generation of Civil Rights leaders was to redirect inherited forms of social capital to new (political) purposes–for instance, by encouraging people already assembled in pews to boycott buses. Social capital had always been different in the urban North, it changed rapidly in the late 1900s, and leftists became critical of its major components, such as churches. Subsequent movements have sometimes tried to do without much organization or to create social capital almost from scratch, as with the communes, collectives, and consciousness-raising groups of the later 1960s.

Clearly, other changes also unfolded during the Sixties (which lasted until 1974 or so), including new causes, crises, ideologies, and constituencies. But I think the issues I’ve mentioned here still echo for today’s activists.

See also: social movements of the sixties, seventies, and today; why the sixties wore jeans; a different explanation of dispiriting political news coverage and debate; What is the appropriate role for higher education at a time of social activism? etc.

civics and consensus

As someone who has worked for more than 20 years on the nitty-gritty of civic education in schools and colleges (the details of state standards, curricula, textbooks, measures, tests, etc.), I welcome prominent calls for more attention to this topic. The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens by the senior diplomat Richard Haass looks like a worthwhile example. I look forward to reading this book after seeing a pre-release article in The Atlantic entitled “Why We Need Civics: We’re failing to teach what it means to be American.”

But I would like to register a qualm about the basic thrust of the argument, at least as it’s presented in The Atlantic. Haass offers the example of Passover, when Jews reinforce their “collective identity” by retelling a short story that has explicit lessons. Haass thinks that US citizens must do something similar. “America is organized around a set of ideas that needs to be articulated again and again to survive.” His book will no doubt say more about exactly what these ideas are, but the article suggests that they are facts about the structure of the US Constitution and a positive view of that system.

I definitely feel the appeal of a collective ritual in which all my fellow citizens affirm what I believe most strongly. Similarly, I like the idea that after death, we will all meet our Maker and have revealed unto us the truths that I happen to hold right now on earth. The problem is that we actually disagree, and I could well be wrong.

To me, our main civic deficit is not a failure to teach certain basic facts about the political system. Haass underestimates the amount of time students are already required to spend studying these topics, because he only counts state-required courses entitled “civics” or “US government.” Students also study American history at several grade-levels, addressing the topics he mentions in his article. State mandates for civics courses are valuable–I have helped to work for them–but the difference in students’ knowledge between states with and without those mandates is small (Kawashima-Ginsberg & Levine 2014). We must address other dimensions of the problem.

I think our main deficit is that we do not disagree well. We will always hold conflicting views, not only about routine matters like how to allocate public money, but also about such fundamental questions as what defines us as a people, what to make of our history, and whether our current constitution is well designed. In a free and diverse society, people will hold sharply divergent views about such matters and should care enough to articulate them. However, current debates are polarized and distorted in damaging ways.

Disagreeing well is a high bar. It requires values, but they are values like empathy, responsiveness, respect, and humility-plus-conviction that are demanding and whose exact implications are themselves highly debatable. It is often a good and hard question whether a given statement deserves respect.

Disagreeing well also requires facts, but they are not mainly facts about the basic structure of the US Constitution. Ideally, deliberating citizens know history, statistics, economic principles, the tenets of world religions, natural science, literary representations of society, and many other topics.

On one hand, this means that civic education is all of education–not just a course. Democracy demands richer, more challenging, and more effective teaching of all subjects. On the other hand, we must actively respect fellow citizens who don’t demonstrate much of the knowledge that one can gain in schools. There are other kinds of knowledge (often derived from life-experience). More importantly, all of our fellow citizens have a non-negotiable right to participate in politics and cannot be excluded because of things they don’t know. The higher we set expectations for civic education, the more we risk disparaging many of our fellow citizens. Survey measures of adults’ knowledge of US government usually produce low scores (and that has been true since the dawn of survey research), but so do surveys of public knowledge of health, science, economics, and most other topics. We must be willing to participate with fellow citizens who cannot pass exams.

Therefore, improving civic education is a complex and permanent task. To be sure, it deserves more overall attention, which is why I welcome books like The Bill of Obligations. If nothing else, they contribute to the perennial debate about what kind of a country we are. However, the way forward is not to enact a single new course that reflects a specific view of what everyone should believe. That is a way of imagining a conclusion to our basic debates, when we should be trying to encourage and enrich such discussions.

Source: Kawashima-Ginsberg, Kei, and Peter Levine. “Policy effects on informed political engagement.” American Behavioral Scientist 58.5 (2014): 665-688. See also: the relevance of American civil religion to K-12 education; college students’ civic knowledge “appalling” … in 1943; putting the constitution in its place; two dimensions of debate about civics; and The Educating for American Democracy Roadmap.

right and left on campus today

A recent book by Amy J. Binder and Jeffrey L. Kidder, The Channels of Student Activism: How the Left and Right Are Winning (and Losing) in Campus Politics Today, rings true to me and offers numerous original insights. It’s based on 200 hours of interviews with 77 student activists on four flagship state university campuses.

The progressive activists include liberals (who define liberalism as support for the Democratic Party) and leftists (who disparage liberalism). On campus, most find courses, professors, majors, and co-curricular opportunities–such as multicultural centers–that align with their views and interests. Progressive donors and foundations fund such opportunities by donating to the institutions, which remain in control of the students’ experiences. None of the leftist students have leftist parents, and often they have been radicalized by courses. This does not mean that professors brainwashed them; sometimes, rigorously presented material radicalizes people who choose to study it.

The progressive students are especially concerned about their own universities’ policies, whether regarding diversity, climate, or labor issues. They form close relationships with favored faculty and staff. However, many are frustrated when their institutions fail to change; and their faculty and staff mentors–who are employees with job descriptions and supervisors–cannot help them wholeheartedly. (In my experience, many employees are also torn between their personal political views and a professional ethic of neutrality.)

Progressive students who work with national or global organizations or networks provide free or cheap labor as “service”; some even raise money as canvassers. In short, they give more to national progressive efforts than they get back. Their activism rarely opens channels to post-college employment, and some even want to return to academia as staff or faculty.

The conservative activist students range ideologically from moderate institutionalists and intellectuals to MAGA radicals. However, they are fewer and they form more of a community on each campus than the progressives do. They express few complaints about university policies and are rarely interested in that topic. They are critical of campus culture, and they blame their fellow students more than the institution for perceived leftwing bias. In any case, they are mainly involved with national organizations and networks.

Conservative donors and foundations are leery about contributing to universities–or at least to their liberal arts, academic components–but eager to support conservative students directly with paid internships and other opportunities. Conservative students meet peers from other campuses at national gatherings and move readily into post-graduate jobs. They get more than they give from national organizations.

To the extent that conservative activists intervene on their own campuses, it is mostly by inviting speakers in the hope of influencing campus culture. For conservative national organizations that fund speakers, controversial visitors represent an attractive wedge issue. Although conservative students are deeply divided about the merits of the more controversial speakers, they are united about free speech. Besides, protests against conservative speakers attract national publicity that plays well on the right.

This sociological account explains more about politics on today’s campuses than a narrow focus on the universities’ own policies or an analysis of generational proclivities, such as an alleged turn away from liberal values. As always, most people behave according to incentives and norms–including radical people in radical organizations.

For me, the book raises complex normative questions (what should we want from higher education?) and policy questions. I hope to address those matters further in a review-article about this book and several other interesting recent works on higher education and politics.

See also what sustains free speech?; a civic approach to free speech

upcoming book talks

Tuesday, January 31 at 4 p.m: The Providence College Humanities Forum, in collaboration with “Conversations for Change” and The Frederick Douglass Project ; Ruane Center for the Humanities 105, Providence College, Providence RI

Friday, February 3 from 12:00pm to 1:30pm: Ohio State University COMPAS Colloquium (“What Should Civic Education Become in the 21st Century?”, panel with Angela M. Banks and Winston C. Thompson. Also online.

Monday, Feb 6: at Wake Forest University’s Program for Leadership and Character in Winston-Salem, NC

Plus a very enjoyable visit to a Harvard Design School seminar today, thanks to my friend Eric Gordon.


Frontiers of Democracy 2023: Religious Pluralism and Robust Democracy in Multiracial Societies

Frontiers of Democracy is an annual conference at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life that convenes practitioners and scholars for intensive discussions. In 2023, thanks to generous funding from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the special theme of the conference is religious pluralism and its relationship to democracy in multiracial societies. 

The speakers in plenary sessions will include Cornell William Brooks, Brandon Thomas Crowley, Diana Eck, Aminta Kilawan-Narine, Eric Liu, Cristina Moon, Simran Jeet Singh, Michael Wear, and others. 

The religious pluralism theme is not exclusive, and we welcome sessions on other topics related to Tisch College’s “North Star”: building robust, inclusive democracy for an increasingly multiracial society. While we will consider proposals for presentations or panels of presentations, we actively seek proposals for other formats, such as moderated discussions, meetings devoted to strategy or design, trainings and workshops, case study discussions, debates, and other creative formats. 

Time and location: July 13 (5-7 pm) to July 15 (noon) on Tufts University’s Medford, MA campus near the Medford/Tufts Station on the Boston Green Line.

Cost: $240 for a standard ticket with discounts for current students. This includes hors d’oeuvres on July 13, breakfast and lunch on July 14, and breakfast and lunch on July 15. Other meals and lodgings are not provided.