It’s Time to Stop Romanticizing the Civil Rights Movement and Get Real
With celebrations relegated to the shortest month of the year, Black history has been reduced to a highlight reel of America’s proudest moments. While photos of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. linking arms to march courageously toward freedom are inspiring, the civil rights movement was more than nonviolent protests and sit-ins. The tendency to glamorize their struggles has led to a gross misunderstanding of the movement and is reflected in how we approach activism today.
Civil rights leaders were inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent civil disobedience, but prior to taking to the streets, they were avid students of his philosophies and ideas. In his memoir “Walking with the Wind,” Sen. John Lewis details the many hours spent role playing to train themselves not to react. It was this dedication that helped them remain stoic and unmoved as they faced threats and violence from the white public.
The economic significance of the civil rights movement is rarely discussed, but it is doubtful that protests would have been as successful in producing legislation had they not directly impacted local businesses and governments. At the time of the Montgomery bus boycott, an estimated 75 percent of its riders were African-American. Carpools were arranged, taxi drivers lowered their fares and Montgomery sidewalks became crowded during rush hour as many citizens chose to walk. Black churches and various organization across the nation raised money to support these efforts.
When King and other boycotters were indicted for conspiring to interfere with a business, they used their arrests to draw national attention to their cause and drove the local government into further economic distress with “Jail-No-Bail” sit-ins.
Perhaps it is our instant-gratification culture that makes it difficult to imitate the patience of leaders who remained committed to the Montgomery bus boycott for over a year. In 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement received national attention when supporters protested corporate influence over democracy by occupying New York’s Zucotti Park. However, lacking a long-term vision, their protests failed to impact the corporations they were targeting and all that remains of their efforts today is the “We Are the 99%” meme.
More recently, film producer David Simon proposed a national “General Strike” for Friday, Feb. 17. It’s unclear who is spearheading the efforts now, although they’ve partnered with the Women’s March to draw attention to their cause. A hastily built website states, “Each strike should have a clear goal and should not be limited to missing work” but does not detail the strike’s own goals or proposed impact. It instructs supporters not to work or spend money, but in doing so isolates the most vulnerable populations that it claims to support.