Social justice movements inspire and compel because they unite masses of people, if only for a brief while, with the promise of a different and better world. Who could fail to be inspired by the idea of a tired seamstress refusing to give up her seat on a segregated city bus, and the resulting movement that motivated thousands of African-Americans to walk or carpool to work and boycott the bus system for 13 long months in Montgomery, Alabama? That boycott catapulted to fame a young 26-year-old minister named Martin Luther King Jr., ended segregation of public transport in the onetime capital of the Confederacy, and launched a decade of profound racial and social changes in the United States that reverberated around the world. It was mostly young people, first African-Americans and then joined by whites, who led the Southern civil rights movement — the “borning” movement that gave rise to the subsequent social justice movements of an era often abbreviated as simply “the sixties.”
In honor of Women’s History Month, and since women across U.S. history have been over-represented in social movements but often underrepresented in coverage of them, I asked six Louisville women activists to reflect on the post-World War II African-American freedom movement in relation to their social justice work. For many observers of social justice movements, it seems far easier to celebrate gains of the past than it is to see the persistence of systematic injustices today and embrace those who mobilize to end them. Yet all of these resisters are part of a tradition of dissent that has been part of the American democratic experiment since before this nation was established. Race and racism were not the only defining issues in American democracy, but they were central to it because European settlers had dispossessed darker-skinned native peoples to settle what became the U.S. and then built an economy on uncompensated, enslaved labor of African-Americans. British common law was adapted into American law to fuel and support enslavement, even as more resisted it through the 18th and 19th centuries.
Although that dissent has ebbed and flowed through American history, its sheer numbers defined the decade of the 1960s as the post-World War II baby boomers entered their teen and young adult years and demanded a “more perfect union.” That project began with ending the blatant Jim Crow segregation that excluded African-Americans from many kinds of jobs and places, humiliated them with “colored only” signs in the South, and threatened or even took their lives for resisting discrimination.
With the rise of the Black Lives Matter, or BLM, movement in the wake of the Michael Brown police shooting in 2014, and with dissent rising in response to the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim policies and pronouncements of President Donald Trump, social justice movements are experiencing a resurgence that inevitably prompts some comparison with 1960s protests.
What are the points of connection between the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s and the contemporary social movements in our midst in the age of Trump?
There are many affinities between those movements of three generations ago and those blossoming today, as it turns out, although there are also important points of disjuncture. At its most basic, a look back to the 1960s offers needed doses of inspiration, local BLM leader Chanelle Helm reminded me. Knowing about the changes youth brought about half a century ago in ending segregation laws and the Vietnam War “created hope” for 23-year-old climate change organizer Erin Bridges, who reflected that “so much today feels impossible to move, but learning about the civil rights movement gave me a sense of how we as young people could make change.”
In Kentucky and nationally, the American Civil Liberties Union has been combating the rise of Trump with more events and house parties that raise both consciousness and funds to continue the fight. History is an integral part of that consciousness-raising. ACLU-Kentucky Communication Director Amber Duke cited the state’s Blue Lives Matter bill as a most glaring example of an inattention to history on the part of the general public. Until now, hate-crime laws offered special protection only to historically discriminated-against groups — i.e., those who had been systematically singled out over time for violence on the basis of being a member of such groups, and who had often been unable to seek redress for those crimes because of historical prejudices such as racism, sexism, or homophobia. To add a profession (law enforcement) to the list of protected groups, and in a bill named in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, seems not only to ignore but to denigrate that history. Duke sees the bill as the latest form of what white critics of the civil rights movement decried as “reverse discrimination” — an inflammatory, unfounded-by-numbers claim used to counter affirmative action since the 1970s.
Most history books today lift up charismatic national figures such as Dr. King and may mention Rosa Parks, at least briefly. Yet how many Americans know much about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC (pronounced “Snick”), launched in 1960 by college students who had led sit-ins that spread to 80 Southern cities in three weeks’ time back when there was no social media to help get the word out? How many have ever even heard of Ella Baker, SNCC’s older, adult mentor and “spiritual godmother”? By 1960, Baker had been assiduously traveling the nation for close to 25 years, organizing in black communities small and large and stressing the importance of relationship-building. Her approach — which her biographer would later call “radical democratic” decentralism — sought to empower new, local leaders to work in their own communities rather than gaining followers for herself or others. When African-American college students began challenging segregation through direct action in 1960 and then got together to form SNCC, Baker wrote to longtime Louisville activist Anne Braden that it was “the most important development” of their lifetimes.
The two women might feel similarly about today’s new movements. The organization Erin Bridges works with, a national network of campus-based divestment activists, consciously uses Baker’s example and her approach to cultivate diffuse college student leadership. Although it might be a stretch for most of us to name any particular climate change leaders, such work has led to much greater public awareness of problems with fossil fuel reliance.
Likewise, Cassia Herron, a leader of Louisville’s food cooperative movement, pointed to the tradition of Baker in creating the kind of “leader-full” (not “leaderless”) movement she and others want to develop more of, as opposed to what Herron calls a “savior mentality” that leaves people reliant on particular charismatic leaders who may not be forthcoming. Critics of BLM, the 2016 Dakota Access Pipe Line encampment and, before them, Occupy in 2011, have taken issue with their lack of hierarchy, designated officials, or even spokespeople. But those are intentional organizing strategies, and while they are gaining currency in social justice movements today, they are not new, as demonstrated by Baker and SNCC.
Starting perhaps with the thousands of pamphlets 19th-century abolitionists circulated by tossing them onto docks in port cities, American social justice movements past and present have relied heavily on media. In September 1955, Mamie Till Mobley made the wrenching decision to open her 14-year-old son’s casket for “all to see,” and at least 50,000 Chicagoans witnessed Emmett Till’s mangled body — the result of his lynching, a few days earlier and hundred miles south in Mississippi, for a mere smile at a white woman. Many thousands more across the U.S. and beyond saw the grisly images of young Till’s body and the equally powerful ones of his grieving mother in Jet Magazine.
Publicity of a senseless killing that was far from unique helped to galvanize a new generation of mass civil rights movement, made visible only three months later with the outbreak of the bus boycott in Montgomery. At the movement’s height eight years later in 1963 — an era when television was young and featured only three major news networks — TV news coverage of police dogs attacking black children at protests in Birmingham horrified many whites into supporting civil rights for the first time upon realizing the lengths to which southern segregationists would go for white supremacy.
“That image [of Emmett Till’s body] still empowers me as a mother concerned about my black sons,” said Louisville activist Shameka Parrish-Wright, referring to the power of history and that of media. Twenty-first century technology — cell-phone cameras and social media — provides far more immediacy than what was available in the 1950s-60s, making media attention even more vital to contemporary movements, perhaps especially when it comes to exposing racist atrocities, much as the Till coverage did in 1955. Maybe millions saw Eric Garner on the ground and heard his cries of “I can’t breathe” after he was pinned by New York City police in 2015. Actions like Diamond Reynolds’s poignant 2016 Facebook-live video of her boyfriend Philando Castile’s shooting by Minnesota police, even as he tried to cooperate, have pushed awareness and action across the globe.
In Kentucky, we have social justice media warriors such as recently-elected Rep. Attica Scott, D-Louisville, who became what media scholars call an “early adopter” of first Facebook and then Twitter as platforms for social movement building. Several women interviewed here cited the power of her messaging for local social justice information-sharing and mobilizing.
Most activists today rely on multiple social media platforms as key elements of movement-building, although the images and conversations can be traumatic at times, just as they were in the case of Emmett Till. Especially in cases in which dialogues go no further than among one’s own Facebook friends, as Parrish-Wright put it, social media are a necessary but also a “weak form of contact: We need door-to-door too.”
Of course, there are also significant differences between today’s social justice movements and those of the 1960s. “There was a lot more clarity [then] about the need to center racial justice in movements,” said longtime anti-racist activist Carla Wallace, who helped to establish Louisville’s Fairness Campaign in the early 1990s and cofounded Showing Up for Racial Justice, or SURJ, as a local and national network of whites working to end racism.
Despite, however, videos such as one shared by Diamond Reynolds, and studies showing racial disproportionalities in the U.S. criminal justice system (police treatment, arrest, sentencing and incarceration) past and present, most whites have been resistant to acknowledge, address or redress the institutional and cultural racism that remained after passage of civil rights laws.
The single greatest predictor of a Trump vote was whiteness. The failure of social justice movements “to center racial justice and make clear its connection to economic justice let the other side define the issues,” Wallace has observed, allowing for the rise of a white, working-class populism filled with Islamophobia and anti-immigrant fears.
At the same time, demographics are changing. Our nation is getting both browner and younger. Trump won a majority from voters 25 and under in a mere handful of the whitest states (Kentucky among them). And although social justice activists remain in the minority, our movements today are far more “intersectional” than they were in the 1960s. Conceptually, they take into account that various forms of oppression—racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, to name a few — are interconnected and cannot be addressed as distinct from one another. On the ground, that means a firmer commitment to coalition-building, putting ourselves in others’ shoes, and working to see how different issues connect (as in the wide-ranging vision encapsulated in Movement for Black Lives principles).
New social justice issues have also inevitably arisen. Few, if any, half a century ago could have predicted the emergence of transgender liberation as a new identity-based social justice cause, but the trans movement is increasingly visible and vocal, in part in reaction to the Trump administration’s efforts to reverse trans people’s progress in claiming their own gender identities.
When social justice feminist Angela Davis took to the stage in Louisville precisely one week after Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, her own past as a black militant in the late 1960s brought the lessons of that history to the new movement. Students and seniors, activists and observers, liberals and socialists, Louisvillians of all colors and genders came out in droves. Hundreds had to be turned away from the largest lecture venue on UofL’s campus, while hundreds more packed a balcony that offered them standing room only and a limited view of the stage. A thirst for unity and inspiration was on full display. Therein, according to the women I interviewed, lies the hope. •
Fosl is a historian, professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and director of the Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research at UofL.