Saturday, June 17, 2006

A borning movement

JoAnn Robinson, Ella Baker, Fanny Lou Hamner, Diane Nash, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain, David Richmand, Michael Schwerner, Andy Goodman, James Chaney, Julian Bond, Ruby Doris Robinson, Mary King, Casey Hayden, John Lewis, James Farmer and Bob Moses.

Those are just some of the names that I remember. There were so many more people involved in the civil rights movement than Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.*

There was an interesting discussion on Alas about animal rights protesters, and the appropriateness of comparing them to the civil rights movement. My feelings about this were made clear when Hugo Schwyzer compared something (I'm still not sure what) to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

I consider my knowledge of the civil rights movement barely adequate to write something about that movement on my blog. But I have decided to try because those with power, from the president of the united states down, have co-opted the Civil Rights movement - and what it stood for. Part of that is presenting a wartered down, simplified version of its history, and concentrating a few leaders, rather than the people who actually did the work.

For me the hope that I need to continue fighting comes from realising that people have fought and won before - that I am just one link in an incredibly long chain. We can't maintain that chain unless we know, preserve and fight for our own history.

So when Hugo talks about every movement needing it's Malcolm Xs and it's Martin Luther Kings. I just despair. The two myths of the civil rights movement that deradicalise it the most are the idea that Rosa Parks was just tired that day, and the idea that the movement was some sort of spectrum between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. This just isn't true, in the 1950s and 1960s there was a much more complicated range of views about America's racist society and what to do about it than the popular image of these two men.

But it's more than that, I believe that political movements can survive without Martin Luther Kings and Malcolm Xs. A movement does not stand or fall on charasmatic speakers, and leaders. The most important people in the civil rights movement were not the people you've heard of, but the people who haven't.

By focusing on the leaders and the speeches, the work those in the movement did is forgotten. It was door knocking, and organising, not great speeches, that created a movement. It was tiring, dangerous, hard work, that many people subsumed their life to.

On Alas people were talking about the lessons of the civil rights movement. I'm sure there are many different lessons, but for me the most obvious one, is the one that official history tries to hide. The Civil Rights movement was founded on collective action and understood that the only power we have is when we work together. That's why I think it's important that we stop repeating the myths about the civil rights movement.

If you don't know anything more about the civil rights movement than what you've picked up by osmosis, then then do some reading, before you write about it. Civil Rights Movement Veterans is an amazing starting point. Hundreds of people who were involved in the movement have started to write about their experiences on the site itself, and it has a huge bibliography and set of links for people who want to know more (if you can beg, borrow or steal a copy of SNCC: The New Abolotionists by Howard Zinn then I would highly recommend doing so).

If you do know something about the civil rights movement (and I would expect that both Hugo Schwyzer and Vegankid do) then act like it. Stop making it the cliche to which everything else is compared, instead talk about the movement when you have something of substance to say.

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