Politics & Media
Aug 31, 2015, 10:31AM

The Civil Rights Movement Didn't Succeed

Black Lives Matter shouldn't imitate it.

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The Civil Rights Movement is now almost uniformly seen as a positive part of history. Though it was controversial, its goals, tactics and martyred leadership have become publicly sanctified. That sanctification is in part what leads us to say the Civil Rights Movement achieved its goals. Once, white people thought it was okay to make black people ride in the back of the bus. White people no longer think that. Therefore, Martin Luther King did not die in vain. The Civil Rights Movement was a success.

But was it really? Or is its success, in the public imagination, overstated?

That question is important in part because not just the tactics, but the success of the Civil Rights Movement is at issue when people criticize the current civil rights struggle, Black Lives Matter. You can see that in a recent Washington Post piece by Barbara Reynolds, a veteran of the Civil Rights movement.

Reynolds characterizes BLM as a "motley-looking group" and criticizes activists for wearing baggy pants, listening to rap music, and being "confrontational and divisive." She also argues that BLM would benefit from closer ties to the black church, which lent the Civil Rights Movement "an innate respectability." Black Lives Matter, she concludes, needs to look to elders like Oprah and Al Sharpton if it’s going to be successful.

The subtext here is that the Civil Rights movement was successful, and should therefore be emulated. And certainly, the Civil Rights movement had major successes in ending legal segregation in the Jim Crow South. It also made many overt expressions of racism in public life anathema.

But it wasn't all successes. One of the central battles of the Civil Rights movement—desegregated schools—was basically lost. Michael Brown's school in Ferguson, for example, was deeply segregated, and it wasn't an aberration in Missouri or the country as a whole.

The Civil Rights movement didn't change minds as much as we like to tell ourselves. Reynolds says that the movement used a "loving, nonviolent approach," and that that, "is what wins allies and mollifies enemies." But Civil Rights protests, despite their (not always perfect) commitment to nonviolence, were not seen as harmless or non-threatening. On the contrary, many people then and still saw the Civil Rights marches as undermining public order and safety. Dog-whistle rhetoric around law and order helped Nixon get into the White House. And that rhetoric, over time, became the basis for our massive, decades-long incarceration binge and the growth of the police state that Black Lives Matter is fighting against.

Black Lives Matter is not in a position to adopt the politics of the Civil Rights movement in part because those politics were in the long run ineffective. The Civil Rights Movement leaders embraced nonviolence as a way of showing themselves to be law abiding and worthy of equal rights. But the mainstream white response has been to claim that it’s not skin color, but criminality, which is being policed. The state is built on respectability politics—on the idea that if you’re not perfectly nonviolent and respectful at all times, then you deserve any punishment, torture, and violence that the state chooses to mete out.  The Civil Rights movement said, "We deserve equal rights because we are respectable." And the prison system responded, "Okay, we'll treat respectable black people well, but if anyone falls from perfect respectability (by, for example, being black)—we'll bring the hammer down."

Reynolds acknowledges some of the limits of the Civil Rights movement. For example, she praises BLM for including women in leadership and focusing on women's rights and experiences in a way that the Civil Rights Movement often didn’t. In that case, and in others, Black Lives Matter is different from the Civil Rights movement not by accident, but because a deliberate choice has been made to try to learn from the mistakes of the past, as well as the successes.

The fact that the Civil Rights movement didn't achieve equality for black people in America is not the fault of that movement. White institutional racism is intransigent and resistant to change. But even if the Civil Rights movement isn't culpable, its failures need to be acknowledged. Restaging the Civil Rights movement isn't possible. But it's also not desirable. The Civil Rights movement accomplished a lot, but its success was very partial. You can tell how partial because Black Lives Matter is necessary.

—Follow Noah Berlatsky on Twitter: @hoodedu

  • Being civil and and non-violent is a good lesson for BLM. If you want to win hearts and minds, the current public behavior of BLM is a losing strategy.

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  • BLM is a mess. The "pigs in a blanket fry 'em like bacon" chant is embarrassing. Have any of the leaders denounced this? If not, it's hard to take them seriously. I'm not a fan of cops generally, but what the heck are they doing chanting crap like that?

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  • If the CRM won so many hearts and minds, why are cops still shooting black people?// Respectability politics, which is what you're both advocating, doesn't necessarily work. You can see it didn't work, because, hello, decades after the civil rights movement, we've still got segregation and mass violence against black people via the justice system.// BLM has a different relationship to respectability politics than the CRM did. This is true. Does that mean it's less tactically sophisticated than the CRM? No. In part it means that it's learning from the CRM's successes as well as its failures.// And,you know, worth rememberign that the CRM was reviled in its time too. That's kind of one of the lessons. Doesn't matter how respectable you are; people will hate you for advocating for treating black people like human beings.

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  • By your logic Noah, The Civil War was a failure like the CRM. It didn't stop blacks from being shot by the cops either. Therefore, BLM should learn from the Civil War that militant behavior doesn't work. What's next, are you going to suggest that BLM should pattern their position after the Irish? They almost never get shot here in the U.S.A..

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  • The civil war was a failure in a lot of ways. Or rather, the south won for many purposes.//I don't think BLM is seriously considering armed insurrection or a civil war. The fact that you seem to think they are(?) is...I don't really know what to say to that. Except that, whatever they do, they shouldn't listen to you.

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  • You don't think BLM should be civil, you also don't think they should be militant, so what is it your are recommending? It's easy to sit on your high horse and poke holes in previous events but where are you with actual solutions?

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  • I get it! CRM failed because it didn't wipe racism out completely so now it is a good idea to chant about the pigs and killing them. This must be what it takes not to fail again, as failure is anything less than absolute perfection.

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  • BLM is civil. They have a different relation to respectability politics than the CRM. If you don't know what respectability politics is, Texan, you can google.// Rabelais, in your opinion, are chants worse than shooting someone to death? I'm curious why you seem so obsessed with the first while largely dismissive of the second.

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  • Wonder why you thought this question is relevant? They could beat up people too,as part of their protest, and that wouldn't be worse than shooting people.Doubt that would be good strategy either.

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  • Since when is chanting "Pigs in a blanket, fry them like bacon" and bum-rushing the stage of a political candidate in order to take over his rally civil? A sit-in is civil. A march with chants for justice and equality is civil. BLM 's actions would be considered anything but civil if perpetrated against them and their position. You can keep blathering about "respectability politics" all you want or you can respond to my questions and comments, but stop trying to change the topic to fit within your narrow view.

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  • Respectability politics is not even a matter of concern here. All that matters is defining and enacting an effective strategy. All the rest is just superfluous fodder for endless essays.

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  • Cops shoot people. Some are black. Were the blacks supposed to be immune or something. Besides, blacks shoot blacks, so something or other was a failure. Any ideas?

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  • Yes, here's an idea: drag your fucking skull into the 21st century. (Apologies to Grandma for language.)

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