Civil Rights Struggles Offer Lessons
Students Still Have Much to Learn from Past Struggles
As distant as many of our young people feel from the civil rights struggles of the past, there are many lessons to learn from these struggles — and many issues today to which to apply yesterday’s lessons.
In January, we celebrated the anniversary of the birth of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The 50th anniversary of his assassination is in April. Many of our young people today have trouble connecting to efforts of civil rights activists of the 1950s and 60s to open up schools, colleges, and universities to black students; to desegregate restrooms, water fountains, and parks; to permit blacks to use public beaches and department store lunch counters; and to permit blacks to vote and to live where they choose.
The many contributions of organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the NAACP itself, among many other organizations, helped make this a more just country. Yet our children today have trouble imagining a world in which rights they take for granted didn’t exist.
Between 1954 and 1968, enormous progress was made to right historic wrongs in this country.
In 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously set aside Plessy v. Ferguson and declared unconstitutional de jure segregation in schools in Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education.
In 1955, the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott began. A year later, the Supreme Court would rule that segregated seating in the town’s municipal buses was unconstitutional.
In 1957, Congress would pass the first of three civil rights acts in 11 years, with an ambitious Southern senator leading the charge in the U.S. Senate.
In 1960, the first lunch counter sit-in took place in Greensboro, North Carolina. College students forced lunch counters across the South to desegregate in the ensuing half decade.
In 1961, the first Freedom Ride began in Washington, D.C, with the goal of reaching New Orleans two weeks later. Freedom rides, their resultant violence, and their public consciousness raising led to desegregated public transportation.
In 1963, the non-violent efforts of SCLC and others to desegregate Birmingham and to permit blacks to gain employment in the city led to additional violence and consciousness raising. A year later, Congress passed the second and most important of its civil rights acts in an 11-year period, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which would prohibit racial segregation in employment, schools, and other public accommodations.
In 1965, political organizing and the Selma-to-Montgomery marches for voting rights would generate more violence and more consciousness-raising. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to eliminate racial discrimination in voting in the wake of these historic marches.
In 1968, Congress passed its third civil rights act in 11 years. The Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act, would prohibit discrimination in housing on the basis of race, religion, or national origin.
At the end of his life, Dr. King had moved from being a civil rights activist to a civil and human rights activist. In the face of skepticism from many in his religious-political circle, he began to argue against the Vietnam War in early 1967 and to organize a Poor People’s Campaign in Washington in 1968. One could easily argue that these struggles were logical outgrowths of the civil rights movement. At a minimum, they were connected struggles, ones that also worked to raise the issues of inequity and inequality.
Many of the specifics of civil rights struggles during King’s life appear dated, historical. If you didn’t live them, it is hard to imagine what life was like for those who did. And yet many of the same struggles exist today, albeit in different forms.
Poverty is significantly greater now than when President Johnson declared the War on Poverty in 1965 and Dr. King began to organize a Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. When one in five U.S. children lives in poverty—a poverty that cuts across ethnic lines, though disproportionately affecting black and brown families—there remains work to do nationally.
While legal housing segregation has been eliminated, de facto housing segregation still exists, and homelessness has become a substantial issue in this country over the last 30 years.
While the Vietnam War ended decades ago, there have been other wars subsequently — in Iraq and in Afghanistan particularly — whose legitimacy have been sharply questioned. Bellicose talk and action make war with North Korea an increasing possibility today.
While the right of blacks to vote has been unequivocally enshrined in law for the last 50 years, efforts to suppress voter participation of citizens of color and of younger people are rife throughout the country, and gerrymandered districts across the country undermine the intent of one person, one vote.
While lynchings of blacks don’t take place in the South as they did in the century following slavery, the indefensible killings of black men by police officers indicate that we are a long way from the just society that we need to become.
While many of us are a part of a proud immigrant tradition in this country, some are still threatened with imprisonment and/or deportation for the acts of family members.
While legally segregated educational facilities — either in K-12 school districts or in colleges/universities — are no longer of issue, inadequate funding and quality of K-12 schools for children of all ethnicities across the country remain an issue.
It is true that the civil rights struggles of yesteryear are historic ones. Yet the roots of today’s many struggles can be found in the struggles of the past, as can the means to address these struggles.
As we reflect on Dr. King’s life and work this year, we would do well to recall how much thanks we owe to Dr. King and the civil rights activists of the 1950s and 60s, not simply for what they accomplished, but also for what they inspire us to do to improve today’s world.