Social change can be and usually is a slow grueling process as there is generally an ebb and flow of adjustments in society. The “Black Lives Matter” movement is now the important and latest action for change. I am also always reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. saying, in December 1956, after the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Historically, in the United States, regarding the moral universe bending toward justice, invariably it is the courageous stance of the Black community that has taken the lead in social change toward justice and other groups have then followed. It is also true that social change does not happen in a vacuum. You need a model. The Black community also explicitly offered a powerful model of resistance for social change to virtually every other group in America to address their own concerns, be it against discriminatory policies, collective anti-war expressions or other unjust laws and issues that people have wanted to eradicate or change.
There are, however, so many misconceptions about the Kingian methods. Most thought what he did mostly was to protest in the streets. Not so! It is important to note that King, in the steps of non-violent social change, stated that protests known as “direct action” were one of the last steps after identifying the problem, coming up with solutions, trying to negotiate and if that didn’t work to then protest and go back to the negotiations. What is essential here is that if you are concerned about something YOU as a group need to develop ideas for solutions as you certainly don’t want your adversary to do so because more than likely those solutions will not meet with your satisfaction. But activists also need to clear about what they want as it can be a matter of life and death as we have already witnessed in many instances recently in America.
There were actions for justice in the United States in earlier decades in the 20th century, however, but the 1950’s and 1960’s activists by civil rights leaders were the contemporary model and this has prevailed. They taught us all.
Being fed up with the oppression of the Jim Crow unjust state and local laws that imposed racial segregation across the South, the model for change in the 1950s was that of the impressive non-violent resistance of India’s Mahatma Gandhi. King and others made this model explicitly visible in the United States and it is now ingrained in our consciousness. The Black community introduced it full-throttle into the American scene when, in December 1955, the NAACP secretary Rosa Parks resisted racial segregation in transportation by choosing to sit wherever she wanted on the bus in Montgomery. Her choice was the 5th row of the bus, which was the “white” area. This lone action by Parks was in violation of the law and by doing so she launched a revolution.
And for many of us who are white, such as me, we will be eternally grateful to Rosa Parks. Civil rights attorney J.L. Chestnut says that when Rosa Parks sat down she helped all of us to stand. Indeed, she helped launch a movement for the rights of so many in the country and she did this but one year after Joe McCarthy was condemned for spewing his anti-communist hatred in the halls of the U.S. Senate. Yet the anti-communist sentiments continued to prevail, making organizing against oppression all the more complex and difficult. A pale beyond Jim Crow had enveloped the nation. Nevertheless, Mrs. Parks acted in spite of all!
In fact, Rosa Parks and others in Montgomery taught the nation about the tactics of non-violent resistance against injustice and how to do it in the courts, on the streets and by going to jail if necessary. This was followed by Black activist initiatives, along with some white allies, in Greensboro, Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery, Albany, Atlanta, everywhere in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South. Americans witnessed and learned from the Black community about the methods for demanding and attaining justice.
The actions in Montgomery also emulated what was happening in the world after WWII and examples abound. The anti-colonial movement in Africa and elsewhere, after WWII, rose to its heights as Africans demanded independence from European control; in 1955, the same year as Parks sat down, the Bandung Conference took place in Indonesia composed largely of Asian and African representatives, and some from the United States, to oppose western and eastern control of world politics and economies; in 1955, thanks to the African National Congress, there was the adoption of the “South African Freedom Charter” in Kliptown, South Africa; in 1957 Martin Luther King traveled to Ghana for its independence ceremony and to witness Kwame Nkrumah become its Prime Minister; in March 1960 thousands marched in Sharpeville, South Africa against the South African pass laws where 69 unarmed protesters were massacred by the South Africa police. All over the world people were expressing their desire for independence, justice and freedom from oppression.
The major achievements of the revolution for justice in the 20th century in the U.S., and therefore bending the arc toward justice, were the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Taken together, these were huge achievements that radically changed the United States and finally ended the Jim Crow laws that had been in place since the end of Reconstruction in 1877. Many Black lives throughout the century were lost in the process of organizing against the unjust laws, and by demanding and making these changes. But they never gave up! Invariably, there were also some white allies as well in this process who advocated for change under the active leadership of the Black community.
Concerning Black activists taking the lead in social justice, a few years ago, while talking with civil rights leader Reverend C. T. Vivian, he commented about the homosexual community that was demanding its rights at the time. The homosexual concerns had followed, he said, other groups that had also demanded rights in the wake of Black activism and its civil rights achievements. In fact, after the 1960’s landmark civil rights legislation, women began demanding their rights, then the handicapped community, Native Americans and labor became more vocal and now the homosexual community, etc. American Blacks had empowered everyone else, said Reverend Vivian.
Information from the California labor initiatives under Cesar Chavez are instructive:
As a labor leader, (Cesar) Chavez employed nonviolent means to bring attention to the plight of farm workers. He led marches, called for boycotts and went on several hunger strikes. He also brought the national awareness to the dangers of pesticides to workers’ health. His dedication to his work earned him numerous friends and supporters, including Robert Kennedy and Jesse Jackson. (Chavez)
As another example, in 1998 Black farmers successfully filed suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) because of decades of discrimination in loans and services compared to white farmers. This became one of the largest lawsuits ever filed against the U.S. government. I was working at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund at the time and for more than 10 years assisted Black farmers in filing their claims against the USDA. (The Federation, created in 1967, is the primary organization in the U.S. working with Black farmers throughout the South and, in fact, grew out of the civil rights movement. Attorney J.L. Chestnut said once that “many organizations were spawned by the blood that was spilt on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 and the Federation was one of those.”)
After Black farmers successfully filed suit against the USDA, the Native American, Latino and women farmers also filed suit against the USDA. As per usual, the Black community had taken the lead in demanding its rights for equal treatment and others felt empowered because of these successful and compelling actions. Black farmers taught everyone else how to do this.
The contributions and models of Black activism likely had in ending the U.S. war in Vietnam are also significant. Along this line, scholar Karin San Juan has recently written a book about anti-war activists in the 1960’s and 70’s entitled “The People Make the Peace” (2015) – a compelling and descript title. She writes in her book about the massive activism on the streets of America and activists going to North Vietnam, as well, to express their support for the North Vietnamese and their sentiments against the war. All of these endeavors, she states, likely resulted in helping to end the Vietnam War. The collective actions of the people made the difference. This is right out of the Gandhian philosophy.
Indeed, regarding the collective action of the anti-Vietnam War activities in the 1960s and 70s, these mostly white American youths were inspired, empowered and taught lessons from the Black community’s activism in the South and actions such as the King led major “1963 March on Washington”.
There were other actions in Washington in earlier decades in the 20th century but the 1950’s and 1960’s activists by civil rights leaders were the contemporary model.
One major example of undertakings today is against the ongoing racist and violent police behavior. Blacks, and importantly Black youth, are once again playing a leading role in demanding changes in America through the newly created “Black Lives Matter”, which is a significant and important movement.
King would also say that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. All of us in the United States have much to thank the Black community for keeping its eye on the “moral universe” and demanding justice that invariably empowers everyone else. This is because others have learned to not only see the inequities and injustice with scrutiny and a different critical perspective but to follow the Black community’s lead and make demands themselves. Without doubt, this is democracy at work with people seeking, demanding and creating justice now and in the future and essentially helping to bend the arc toward justice.
Thank you Black America!!!
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