Civil Rights for the Twenty-First Century: Lessons from U.S. History

Civil Rights for the Twenty-First Century: Lessons from U.S. History

Image: Dread Scott (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Gurminder K. Bhambra (University of Warwick)


In July 1964, US President Lyndon B Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act prohibiting racial discrimination and empowering the federal government to bring about the formal end of segregation in the United States. The following year saw the passing of the Voting Rights Act, which made it illegal to use arbitrary measures to restrict the registration of African American voters, and the issuance of an executive order requiring government contractors to undertake affirmative action in hiring decisions. Together, these Acts would come to be represented as the legislative achievements of the broader civil rights movement and to herald a new dawn for the possibility of democratic governance and social life in the United States. For those involved in the struggles, however, the legislative achievements were the least of what they had hoped for and were seen primarily as way-markers in the continued struggles for social and economic justice.

Fifty years on, the hollow character of legislation without substantive moves towards social and economic justice is increasingly evident. Indeed, that legislative ‘success’ seems to have elicited a backlash that has been increasingly effective. The early years of the twenty-first century, for example, have been marked by widening inequalities across racial lines and extraordinary levels of incarceration of African American men – what Michelle Alexander calls ‘The New Jim Crow’. The recent gutting of the Voting Rights Act in this context is a cynical embrace of the idea of a post-racial America in the absence of its substance. The growing civil unrest, sparked by the deaths of young African American men at the hands of police officers and the routinized failure of the US justice system to hold the police to account for these murders, is also a response to continued economic injustice.

The last half of 2014 has seen the killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Kajime Powell, Aura Rosser, and 12 year old Tamir Rice, among many, many others. The failure to indict the police officers who killed Eric Garner and Michael Brown saw renewed mass protests organized under the coalition banner ‘Black Lives Matter’. The protests have developed and persisted as a consequence of local activism and organization and building on strategies developed in bringing the earlier murder of Trayvon Martin, and the failure to convict his murderer George Zimmerman, to national and international attention.

An African American man is said to be killed every 28 hours by law enforcement officers or their privatized proxies, but as there is no national database in the US of people killed by the police the figures are believed to be higher still. Dora Apel writes that the extent to which ‘the summary execution of a black man by the police is a common occurrence in America’, with little consequence for the officers involved, it should be seen as ‘a form of modern legalized lynching’.

The response to these modern ‘lynchings’ is reminiscent of earlier civil rights protests, both in terms of the hundreds of thousands of people marching on the streets across various states in the US and the repressive police reaction to such protests. Just as civil disobedience was a necessary part of eventually bringing about change in the 1960s, so it would seem that history needs to repeat itself if we are to see change in our present times.

The price of permanent progress, according to the renowned Civil Rights organizer Bob Moses, is permanent agitation. Institutionalized successes can atrophy, as the recent reversal of the Voting Rights Act attests, and electoral politics without strong social movements can devolve into the expression of organized special interest and lobby groups that, together with a populist politics of resentment (such as the Tea Party), define current US electoral politics (and increasingly those of other Western democracies).

This is not to suggest that the movements of the 1960s failed; indeed, the reverse. They succeeded and we then failed to maintain the momentum necessary for further progress. If what we need now is a new civil rights movement it must learn from the successes of the past and guard against the failures of the present. One part of this, as Charles Payne notes in his history of the Mississippi freedom struggle, will be to understand more clearly the complex constitution of those earlier movements.

The Civil Rights movement is often portrayed as a phenomenon of the 1960s, with little acknowledgement of the long-standing organization and struggles of African Americans for emancipation and equality. Struggles that started with resistance against their coerced migration to the lands that were to become the United States of America and against the slave-society in which they were forced to live and labour. The period of Reconstruction (1865-77), which followed the Emancipation Proclamation beginning the process of ending enslavement in the United States (1863), was a moment in the remaking of the States with intense political organization and activity by African Americans. In this period, an estimated 2000 African American men were elected to public office, including 3 being elected to the Senate, Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce, both senators from Mississippi, and P.B.S. Pinchback, briefly the governor of Louisiana.

The organizational efforts of African Americans, for instituting democratic forms of governance and social life, were met with determined resistance by those who wished to reinstate forms of white supremacy. The latter won out with the Jim Crow laws disenfranchising African Americans and mandating a system of racial segregation across most spheres of social and economic life. It was to be near on a century before the next African American, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, was elected to the Senate.

The racialised organization of governance and social life that became entrenched through the system of Jim Crow is, as Danielle Allen argues, what many (white) Americans came to understand as democracy and the American way of life. The one group who continuously challenged this notion and sought to remake the United States along more egalitarian lines was that of African Americans. As Richard Wright asked in 1957, ‘Isn’t it clear to you that the American Negro is the only group in our nation that consistently and passionately raises the question of freedom?’ (1). If there are always multiple voices necessary to bring about change, there can be little doubt that the African American voice has been both distinctive and significant.

The gains of Reconstruction, then, while important, were temporary. Slowly, patiently, and with determination, people began the process – again – of seeking to build democratic life in the United States. This process involved challenging the legalized discrimination inherent in the notion of ‘separate, but equal’ through the courts and also maintaining pressure through local organizing and activism for democratic change.

In his substantial history of the organizing traditions that were the bedrock of the Mississippi freedom struggle, Payne documents the long and local histories of organization and activism among, usually poor, African American communities. Activism that involved providing schooling to children and adults excluded from the public provision of it, of educating people about the constitution in order for them to be able to register to vote, to supporting people evicted from their housing or having lost their jobs for wishing to register to vote or otherwise stand up for their rights.

It was these long-standing traditions and forms of activism that enabled the dynamic expression of the movement in the 1960s, culminating in the legislative achievements of the time. And it is to this history that we need to turn again in order to learn lessons for our present.

The diverse tactics and strategies of the different groups involved in protesting against the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and others have, on occasion, led to concern about divisions within the movements. Those, like Rev Al Sharpton, who argue for peaceful protest within existing mechanisms, are apprehensive that the broader population will be alienated by the sight of angry street protest by Black youth. Whereas younger activists, such as DeRay McKesson, point out that despite the traditional modes of protest, people are still being killed and so there is a need for action that is ‘more than marching’. This action includes the local groundwork done by youth organizations such as the Black Youth Project, and its offshoot Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), mobilizing people in service of social justice and freedom and tackling the extensive racialized inequalities characteristic of US society. Similarly, there are organizations such as Spirit House with its Harm Free Zone Project which are part of the community-organizing tradition and are seeking to build infrastructure and root themselves in communities.

The generational differences seem to be similar to those within the earlier civil rights movement. Then, too, younger people argued for tactics that involved direct action over the approach favoured by those, such as Thurgood Marshall (who would become the first African American Supreme Court Justice), which focused on litigating for civil rights in the courts. These differences led to the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as an alternative to the more established organizations of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with its older generation of leadership. Notwithstanding, SNCC did also include members of the older generation, such as Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer, in central coordinating positions. SNCC was involved in organizing lunch-counter sit-ins, the freedom rides, the voter registration movement, the freedom schools and other forms of direct action. Without the wider agitation against domination and protests coordinated through SNCC, it is unlikely that the litigating efforts of Marshall and others would have been as successful.

This broader, deeper, more expansive history is vital if we are truly to learn lessons from the past in aid of the times we currently find ourselves in – times which resonate uncannily and disturbingly with histories that many of us had thought we had moved beyond. A new civil rights movement is being called for with increasing urgency and we need to be aware of the everyday activities behind the previous eruptions. As a new year dawns and we move further into the twenty-first century, there is still a need to organize, to educate, and to agitate for democracy and social and economic justice… are we up to the task?


(1) Quoted in Nikhil Pal Singh Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (Harvard University Press, 2004), pp220-1.

Further Reading and References:
Michelle Alexander The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010).
Danielle Allen Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education (University of Chicago Press, 2004).
Danielle Allen “Invisible Citizens: on Exclusion and Domination in Ralph Ellison and Hannah Arendt,” in M. Williams and S. Macedo (eds.) Nomos XLVI: Political Exclusion and Domination (NYU Press, 2005).
Emilye Crosby A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi (University of North Carolina Press, 2005).
Desmond King Separate and Unequal: Black Americans and the US Federal Government (Oxford University Press, 1997)
Charles Payne I’ve got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (University of California Press, 1995, 2007).
Nikhil Pal Singh Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (Harvard University Press, 2004)


Gurminder K Bhambra is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick and for the academic year 2014-15 is a Visiting Fellow, Department of Sociology, Princeton University. She is author of the article ‘A Sociological Dilemma: Race, Segregation and US Sociology’ and of the monographs, Rethinking Modernity and Connected Sociologies.