August 15, 2007
As a student of movement history, I am often frustrated by how my generation perceives the powerful work of the civil rights generation. While many of us–especially us young activists–are keenly aware of the historic efforts of groups like Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Black Panthers or Students for a Democratic Society, our perception of the civil rights movement has been tainted by “superhero” narratives that tend to focus on the actions of great individuals.
Far too often our history is taught from the perspective that change is made only by strong primary leaders. Just think about it–when was the last time you saw a movie, read a book or even watched a PBS documentary that wasn’t overwhelmingly told from the perspective of the individual? Yeah, people’s histories exist, but more times than not we study histories of individuals and their ideas and actions. (For a while it was only white males that made history, but as more women and people of color have entered the academy, our historical superheroes have become more diverse.)
The superhero narrative especially dominates our memory of the civil rights movement. Partly because of the powerful iconic images that have been captured by television cameras. It’s hard for us GenX-ers and Millenials to believe it, but the mid-20th century was the first time that history could be documented by capturing moving images.
But we must never forget that the people in front of the camera were not the only change agents during the era. If it were not for the collective efforts of the day’s countless, faceless organizers, neither Dr. King nor Malcolm X would have had such a powerful bully pulpit. After all, for every strong primary leader, there were hundreds of secondary leaders who made sure that people turned up for actions and that the events ran smoothly.
Of course, I am not saying this to diminish the great work of individuals like King or Malcolm X. In fact, without their courageous leadership, the important victories of the movement would not have been possible. These two great leaders stepped up and voiced their opposition to the injustices of the day at a time when both assassination and McCarthyism had silenced many of the era’s strongest voices. When leaders like King and X spoke out, they did so knowing that their lives could very well be cut short. This fearlessness must have been inspiring to the average American.
Yet, because the historiography of the Civil Rights Movement is overwhelmingly marked by stories of strong primary leaders, we often forget that it is the collective activity of everyday Americans that the bad guys fear. I often use this example when working with young people, but just imagine if King would have given his “I Have a Dream” speech in front of an empty National Mall. Would the administration have been so quick (some would say that it was still not quick enough) to push the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress? Of course not! Powerful individuals fear the collective voice of the masses.