Where Next For The Civil Rights Movement?

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We tend to think of the civil rights movement as being something that emerged in the 1960s with the actions of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and many of the other figureheads from the golden era. But the roots of it go back much further than that. You could argue that the first inklings of the drive for emancipation began in the eighteenth century with the transatlantic slave trade’s beginnings. Individual families and leaders in the black community fought for freedom personally, looking for opportunities to escape the conditions imposed on them. 

The History Of Civil Rights

As the civil rights movement developed, it took on a distinct enlightenment tone. Leaders borrowed vocabulary from philosophers such as John Locke, talking about the importance of universal moral values. There seemed to be no justification in the western tradition for the different treatment of people of color. According to the value propositions that undergirded the modern era, we’re all equally morally culpable and equivalent beings. 

Things are changing, though. The modern project is coming to an end, and it is reshaping the civil rights movement. Today, there’s less focus on the universal equality of humankind and more on the individual right to be heard and seen. 

Why And How Civil Rights Is Changing

To many people, this movement is not “your grandmomma’s civil rights movement” because people are using more technology. That’s true. It’s unlikely that the shooting of George Floyd would have resulted in the firestorm of protests we saw, had there not been social networks linking all of us together. It is also hard to imagine that we would have seen sporadic activist action across the country without some kind of unifying communication system, enabling organizers to orchestrate a response to the violence that everyone saw coming through their devices. 

But technology isn’t the only factor at play here. So too is the need that people have to cope with their collective trauma. For many people, the recent police behavior is a reminder of things that they’ve had to deal with personally in their own lives. 

You can see the psychological ramifications of this playing out with the Walls of Justice movement. Here, artists are finding ways to process what is happening to the black community using art as a tool. Creating beautiful images is a way of sharing compassion while also highlighting the need to address injustices. It’s not just a matter of making a beautiful work of art to celebrate what’s going on. It’s also about building a kind of shared therapy that helps get to the bottom of painful experiences in all of us. 

For that reason, this civil rights movement feels different. Unlike grandma’s version, it’s not about changing the law per se. It’s more about changing consciousness. Pieces of paper only get you so far. A lot of people want to fundamentally alter the way society thinks about the experience of people of color. And that’s what’s so different about this movement. 

There’s also the fact that fighting for rights gives people a noble cause. It feels good to champion the rights of other people. There’s a yearning in all our souls for freedom. We want to escape the bounds of our culture, strip it all back, and forge something new. It’s both terrifying and liberating at the same time. 

We also see changes in the culture in various public institutions. For instance, the police are under enormous pressure at the municipal level to change how they operate. It’s no longer acceptable to brutalize blacks in the way that we’ve seen on the news and social media. Operating practices must change. Police need to wear video cameras at all times to provide adequate surveillance. And these should be publicly available so that everyone can see what happened and why offices behaved as they did. 

If we don’t get changes like this, then we’re in trouble. The dialectic is only going to get worse. And the police will find themselves at the mercy of more defunding and loss of respect among the communities they serve. 

Remember, what we’ve seen in the case of George Floyd isn’t an isolated incident. Police shootings in the community are nothing new – even if they are more visible today. The task is to find out why they keep happening. Is it something institutional? Or are there operational reasons why this sort of violence is inevitable? 

Whatever the case, the rights movement we see today is embedded in current culture and values. Things have changed a lot since the 1960s. 

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