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I Had A Dream: Political Nostalgia and Civil Rights Movement

I Had A Dream: Political Nostalgia and the Civil Rights Movement

Anne Russell
January 17, 2012

When talking about the Good Old Days (whenever they were), we seem to have a phenomenal ability to whitewash the past. Chris Trotter recently published this opinion piece on the Occupy movement, and its ‘failure’ to succeed in New Zealand. In some senses he is right that the situation is not yet as dire as in the US, and most New Zealanders are unlikely to give up comfortable beds for a tent. Occupy is far from perfect.

It seems that just about every other activist movement was, however. In the first paragraph Trotter extols the virtues of the Civil Rights Movement and the wonders of its solidarity. Apparently Occupy Aotearoa, however, is an incoherent and unnecessary mess that failed to cater to the public’s needs.

One wonders what side Trotter would have taken, had he been reporting at the time of anti-segregation uprising. These days when the US has a national holiday for Martin Luther King that even George W. Bush spoke for, you might as well don a white hood as rail against King and the Civil Rights Movement. Of course I do not deny that the movement was a wonderful, important thing. But just because Martin Luther King said it was a ‘beloved community’ doesn’t make it entirely so.

Trotter writes that “protest marchers and freedom riders look back on their experiences as both the worst and the best moments of their lives” [emphasis mine]. Yet the rest of the article glosses over the hardships—and indeed the failures—of earlier activist movements, while tearing into Occupy Aotearoa. This hardly represents balanced critique. We can discuss only the merits of each movement, only the flaws, or a mixture of both.

One of the reasons Occupy is so easy for commentators like Trotter to target is because it’s happening here and now. It’s much easier to see the pores on someone’s nose if they’re a few centimeters from your face. But just because someone’s skin looks spotless from across a room doesn’t mean it is so. If Trotter is going to lambast Occupy, let me now target the shortcomings of the Civil Rights Movement.

‘Beloved community’ is a slightly misleading term; ‘beloved brotherhood’ might be more accurate. Rosa Parks is, fortunately, remembered for acting as a catalyst for the movement, but her work afterwards was largely unrecognized. She was frequently ignored at political rallies because no one knew or cared who she was. The full biography of Rosa Parks is not taught in history lessons—it is not widespread knowledge that she ended up an aide of Michigan Congressman John Conyers from 1965-1988. The ongoing work of other women in the movement is not commonly taught either; Ella Baker and Dorothy Height are not household names. Height was patronizingly deemed the ‘godmother’ of the movement, but was forbidden from speaking at the March on Washington in 1963, where she can be seen in the background of the I Have A Dream speech. Journalist Paul Delaney reported that “Ella Baker was the first director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), but was forced out after a brief tenure, and the job was given to the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, a close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” Thus even the great King himself was of course not ideologically perfect, but a man who was at least compliant in the perpetration of sexual discrimination.

On this basis I could glibly argue that the Civil Rights Movement ‘failed’. Like many preceding social movements, it failed to sufficiently address gender inequality in favour of concentrating on the ‘greater struggle’. (Somehow the gender struggle is never the ‘greater struggle’, even though it affects every single society.) Moreover, black Americans are still disproportionately poorer and unhealthier than white Americans. There are more African-Americans incarcerated today than there were slaves in 1850. The few black people who have made it into high office have done little to address these deep systematic problems.

So, what happens if we apply Trotter's high standards for Occupy to the Civil Rights Movement of fifty years ago? It won't measure up. The glorification of the Civil Rights Movement is fairly common but dangerous, because it exaggerates the impact it had. The movement at the time focused primarily on ending the legal segregation of the African-American community. But racial prejudice runs much deeper than legality. In this illuminating interview, Dr Camara Jones discusses the way racism operates on three levels: institutional, inter-personal and internal. The latter two are much subtler, and represent knots in society that are very difficult to disentangle. Putting the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement on a pedestal without examining its flaws perpetuates the idea that the battle for racial equality is over, and allows the ridiculous claim to flourish that we live in a ‘post-racial’ world. Meanwhile, rampant racism continues without mass demonstrations, because everything is supposedly fine. You’ve got a black president, what more do you want?!

It’s possible that in thirty years or so the Occupy movement will be thus glorified. There are hints of it in Trotter’s article, with reference to the ‘heroism’ of the movement on Wall Street. Politicians may later speak of it as an inspiring movement and a ‘beloved community’. Will we then blithely ignore the misogyny and sexual harassment that has happened at every occupation? I hope not. Worse still, will we pretend to live in a ‘post-capitalist’ world? It is unlikely that achieving a few legalities, such as dismantling corporate personhood and shady electoral financing, will bring consumer culture to a grinding halt. After all, like racism, mass over-consumption is a problem institutionally, inter-personally and internally.

This article isn’t intended to condemn either activist movement mentioned. Rather is it to say that while they are both well-motivated and necessary, we shouldn’t think they can be sufficient. It’s undeniable that activism is much more in vogue during certain eras. I’m pleased and proud to be alive at this time of protest, for 2011 was a socio-politically dramatic and inspiring time in many places. Not everyone I know is involved in political uprising, however. Not everyone in the 60s was revolting either (some of them were quite nice). Many sat complacently in front of the TV, without having access to the information and activism goldmine of the internet we have now. There were hippies and idealists and Bob Dylan, but there were also many people who were ignorant or neurotic or bigoted or greedy (not to mention Elvis’ single Yoga Is As Yoga Does). If everyone really had Cared So Much More About Everything back in the 60s we might be in less of a mess now.

Perhaps if we stop snuggling into the embrace of nostalgia and look at the world in the sometimes harsh, sometimes clear light of day we can fix it. It can be scary to approach, because the world is hot and emitting smoke, but the longer we leave it on the stove and try pretend that nothing’s cooking the more likely it is to catch on fire. In The Dialectic of Sex radical theorist Shulamith Firestone wrote that we should focus “not [on] sparing children for a few years from the horrors of adult life, but about eliminating those horrors. In a society free from exploitation, children could be like adults (with no exploitation implied) and adults could be like children (with no exploitation implied).” Politically speaking, we cannot spare ourselves—or our children—from the realities of the present, so we should probably stop trying so hard.

I hope that in 30 years my children won’t be moaning that they wish they’d been alive in 2011, because everyone cared so much more back then. Perhaps by then, as Firestone desires, the present time will be good enough that they will want to live in it. If they ask me what it was like to be alive back in the early 21st century, I’ll be thrilled to tell them about how when I was 21 huge numbers of activists began targeting corporate criminals responsible for widespread death and destruction. But I also have to tell them that 2011 was the year the US Constitution was overthrown. I’m sure glad I lived through 2011, but I wouldn’t repeat it.


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