Celia Calvo Aroca.

 

We have all been told about the success of the Civil Rights Movement that took place in the United States of America during the fifties and the sixties. The high amount of protests from the black community opened the way to a series of desegregation processes that culminated with the passing of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act federal bills. But if the Civil Rights Movement really was such a success, why is there nowadays a new movement claiming again against racial discrimination?

Andrews and Gaby argued that the great amount of protests in the spring and summer of 1963 all around the US made the government become involved in the bilateral negotiations for “voluntary desegregation” and, ultimately, as this method didn’t work in the central areas of the South, promote federal legislation such as the Civil Rights Act (1964) that banned discrimination based on race in employment and public accommodation and the Voting Rights Act (1965) that secured voting rights for racial minorities (Andrews and Gaby 2015, 524). Waynes A. Santoro also notes what other research on the movement hold about the success of the Civil Rights Movement: the increase between the fifties and the seventies of black voter registration and black elected officials, the decrease of black poverty rates, the increase by 53% of black family income, the increase of a 100% of black middle class from 1960 to 1970 and the creation of feelings of self-worth in the black community and racial tolerance feelings among the whites (Santoro 2015, 628). Even though all these achievements several surveys hold that, in 1968 and until 2000, a considerable amount of blacks believed that there had been no much real progress after the Civil Rights Movement. This percentage is higher in the lower classes, the unemployed and the ones with lower income. In this article we are going to hold that this is due to the fact that the Civil Rights Movement was a movement held mostly by middle-class male and that this lack of intersectionality in the former movement has led to a decentralized intersectional movement called Black Lives Matter.

Marco G. Giugni has stated that using the dichotomy success-failure when trying to see the outcomes of social movements has several problems. One of them is that social movements are not homogeneous and we cannot always attribute success or failure to an entire movement. Another one is that success and failure are subjective labels and can be different according to whether we take into account the perception of the movement participants or of the external observers (Giugni 1998, 383). Santoro tries to broaden the approach to the success of the Civil Rights Movement by taking into account the perception that the blacks had of the outcomes of the movement. By doing so he gives answer to the two problems that Giugni noted and we have just mentioned.

A survey carried out by Campbell and Schuman in 1968 showed that 42% of the blacks thought there had not been a real improvement in reducing discrimination compared to 10 to 15 years ago. The survey also showed that there were significant differences in the perception about the success of the movement according to the level of income, the class and the employment status. While 64’5% of higher income respondents thought the movement had been successful, only 48’1% of the lower income respondents thought the same. Also less than a half of the unemployed (48’4%) saw a success of the movement in contrast with the employed that felt that way in a 58’9%. Finally, only a 42’9% of the lower class believed the Civil Rights Movement to be successful while around a 60% of the middle and upper classes thought it had been a success (Santoro 2015, 631-635).

All this data would back the alternative narrative about the success of the Civil Rights Movement: that it was a movement of middle-class blacks that didn’t have a real impact on lower-class blacks. The unemployment for blacks remained being the double of the whites’ from the fifties to the seventies as well as racial gaps in income and poverty. Some progresses acquired by the movement affected only middle and upper classes such as desegregation in universities or in public accommodations. Even the mandates against employment discrimination mostly affected middle-class blacks. In fact, it is stated that most demonstrators were middle-class as well as the movement’s leaders, its goals and its tactics (Santoro 2015, 628 and 634).

It is also important to notice that, even though there was not a significant difference between black men and black women perception of the movement’s success, women were not treated equally as men in the movement. Female activists’ contributions and demands were sometimes marginalized and they were often excluded from formal leadership (Santoro 2015, 637).

It could be argued that the perceptions of success of the movement among the blacks would increase as the time passed because there were changes that could only be noticed in the middle and the long term. However, the evidence used by Santoro shows that the percentage of blacks that saw the Civil Rights Movement as successful didn’t vary between 1968 and 2000 (except for an increase during the late seventies and a decrease during the Reagan’s presidency). He suggests that this may be because of Nasstrom’s thesis that the view about the movement is a collective memory transmitted across generations (Santoro 2015, 638-639).

Therefore, it is not surprising that a new racial rights movement, which one of its main claims is intersectionality, has appeared in the political scene. In their web page the Black Lives Matter movement holds: “We affirm the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, undocumented folds, folks with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. Our network centers those who have been marginalized within Black liberation movements” (Black Lives Matter n. d.). Some of the movement organizers say that they are trying to build a movement that learns from the past social movements at the same time that they adopt new strategies, emphasizing intersectionality in terms of race, gender and class. The Black Lives Matter movement is also formed by young and poor people that feel excluded from the civil rights establishment.

Peniel E. Joseph argues that “BLM [Black Lives Matter] has merged the nonviolent civil disobedience of the civil rights movement with the radical structural critique of white supremacy and capitalist inequality articulated by Black Power activists” (Joseph 2017, 19). This statement summarizes the legacy that the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power –to which we haven’t pay much attention in this article but that is also part of the history of racial rights movements in the US- have left on the Black Lives Matter movement. Only time will tell if this new movement, whose aims are to eradicate racial discrimination and to liberate racialized people from all their oppressions, is able to channel all the demands of the heterogeneous black community and make a real change in the lives of all of them.

 

References:

  • Andrews, Kenneth T. and Sarah Gaby. 2015. “Local Protest and Federal Policy: The Impact of the Civil Rights Movement on the 1964 Civil Rights Act”. Sociological Forum 30, No. S1: 509-527.
  • Black Lives Matter. n. d. Accessed November, 26, 2017. https://blacklivesmatter.com/
  • Black Lives Matter. n. d. “About”. Accessed November, 26, 2017. https://blacklivesmatter.com/about/
  • Giugni, Marco G. 1998. “Was It Worth the Effort? The Outcomes and Consequences of Social Movements”. Annual Review of Sociology 24: 371-393.
  • Joseph, Peniel E. 2017. “Why Black Lives Matter Still Matters?” The New Republic 248, No. 5: 16-19.
  • Santoro, Wayne A. 2015. “Was the Civil Rights Movement Successful? Tracking and Understanding Black Views”. Sociological Forum 30, No. S1: 627-647.
  • Shor, Francis. 2015. “Black Lives Matter: Constructing a New Civil Rights and Black Freedom Movement”. New Politics 15, No. 3: 28-32.
  • University of Massachusetts Lowell. n. d. “MLK Week Photo Contest”. Accessed November, 26, 2017. http://web.uml.edu/gallery/index.php/Events/MLK-Week-Photo-Contest/073013-national-march-on-washington-1963-3