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.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.