The Civil-Rights Movement’s Lesson for Today’s Politics

The Civil-Rights Movement’s Lesson for Today’s Politics

The Civil-Rights Movement’s Lesson for Today’s Politics

Moral prophecy is important, but without engaging our adversaries we’ll get nowhere.


“An American crucible,” Jelani Cobb, in The New Yorker, called the moment after the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, followed by the slaughter of five police officers in Dallas and the injury of seven others. In its aftermath, after a season of rising bellicosity at home and abroad, millions of Americans wonder if deepening fractures along racial and other lines can be reversed.

To counter despair, we would do well to recall the forgotten “second voice” from the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.

The public memory is the movement’s prophetic moral voice against the outrages of segregation and racial bigotry. This voice was expressed in Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to “make real the promises of democracy” and testimonies like that of Fannie Lou Hamer, a Mississippi sharecropper who transfixed the nation by her account at the Democratic National Convention in 1964 of brutal efforts to prevent black voting.

Now, as then, moral prophecy is one strand of change-making

But moral prophecy, without attention to the interests, needs, and fears of the audience, easily leads to a Manichean division of the world between the righteous and the damned. Here, it is crucial to remember that in the civil-rights movement moral prophecy was held in tension with a politics of engagement, based on the premise that to make real change requires understanding the complexity and interests of those to whom one is speaking, including adversaries.

The politics of engagement took shape in several ways.

The movement’s signature practice, nonviolence, was expressed in the refusal to demonize segregationists—indeed, in the working belief in the possibility of their redemption. Martin Luther King Jr., came to nonviolence as a political strategy distinguishable from pacifism, a distinction he learned from the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. As Taylor Branch describes in his biography of King, Parting the Waters, Niebuhr saw nonviolence as “a particularly strategic instrument for an oppressed group which is hopelessly in the minority.”

Nonviolence as discipline and belief in redemption was connected to a shrewdly crafted message aimed at winning over “middle America,” racial moderates and even conservatives. This was the strategy of Bayard Rustin, organizer of the March on Washington in 1963, embodied not only in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech but also in the comportment of marchers.  The program notes called participants to act with dignity and discipline even if provoked. “In a neighborhood dispute there may be stunts, rough words and hot insults, but when a whole people speaks to its government the quality of the action and the dialogue needs to reflect the worth of that people and the responsibility of that government.”

Finally, the movement schooled citizens in communities in a politics of engagement by teaching skills of work with others of different views and backgrounds on a large scale. Charles Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom explains that a group of movement leaders taught this approach through citizenship and freedom schools. “If people like Amzie Moore and Medgar Evers and Aaron Henry tested the limits of repression, people like Septima Clark and Ella Baker and Myles Horton tested another set of limits, the limits on the ability of the oppressed to participate in the reshaping of their own lives,” writes Payne.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Citizenship Education Program, CEP, directed by Dorothy Cotton, trained more than 8,000 people from 1961 to 1968 at the Dorchester Center in McIntosh, Georgia, teaching skills of nonviolence, literacy work, and organizing. They returned to their communities and trained thousands more. Cotton recounts the story in If Your Back’s Not Bent: The Role of the Citizenship Education Program in the Civil Rights Movement.  “People who had lived for generations with a sense of impotence, with a consciousness of anger and victimization, now knew in no uncertain terms that if things were going to change, they themselves had to change them.”

The final chapter of King’s work, the Poor People’s Campaign, sought to put these elements together. King, Rustin, and others believed that an interracial movement of poor and working class whites as well as blacks was necessary to address structural and institutional questions such as unemployment, crime, poverty, and failing schools. King’s sermon a month before he was killed, “The Drum Major Instinct,” includes a conversation he had with working class white wardens in a jail, expressing his belief in the possibility of such interracial alliance.  King assigned me, as a young field secretary for SCLC, to organize poor whites, which I did in Durham for seven years.

The hope for a politics of engagement materialized in the community organizing movement which spread through the seventies and eighties. I found when I interviewed many movement veterans that they saw themselves as building a “different kind of politics” with sustaining foundations. Its first premise is that you listen to others’ self-interests, beginning “where people are” not where you would like them to be. This movement schooled the young Barack Obama.

The politics of engagement has not spread widely beyond community organizing, but its core idea is at the heart of American democracy. In the 1830s, the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville contrasted what he saw in America with European nations where the citizenry relied on government or great leaders. “In democratic peoples, associations must take the place of the powerful particular persons,” he wrote in his classic Democracy in America. “In democratic countries the science of association is the mother science.” People can learn that mother science, the politics of engagement.

There is no reason it can’t be revived and taught in schools, colleges, and elsewhere. To do so requires that we remember when this occurred the last time, when the racial divide convulsed the nation.

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