I recently saw a Jeep with a spare tire cover that said “Every Month is Black History Month”. Hell yeah!
Too often, black history is relegated off into some corner, as if it were separate – segregated, one might say – from the rest of history. When said like that, it’s obvious nonsense, but it’s amazing how we (I speak here of mainstream US society) cut ourselves off from what is, in the end, our own history.
A friend of mine told me a story once about how her daughter was listening to some rap music, and the child’s father got irritated at her listening to “black music”. But that father enjoyed rock ‘n’ roll. American music has been black from the beginning. Almost every specifically American genre of music has had enormous influence from African music and black American musicians – from the blues to jazz to R&B to soul to funk to rap and rock ‘n’ roll. Even the “whiter” variants of rock ‘n’ roll or electronica wouldn’t exist without the contributions of black Americans and black music.
In a similar way, one of the crowning achievements of black Americans (and their white allies) is pigeonholed as “black history”. But the world would be radically different without the US Civil Rights Movement of the Fifties and Sixties.
Many other civil rights movements were directly inspired by the “Civil Rights Movement”: from the Catholic civil rights movement in Northern Ireland (tragically aborted in favor of armed struggle) to very similar movements for equality for other races in the US for American Indians and Chicanos. Extending outward from racial justice, the movement also inspired the anti-Vietnam War movement, feminism from late Sixties onward, and the movement for LGBTQ equality and civil rights, as well as struggles for economic justice, the environment, and others.
In the largest sense, every major struggle for social change sees the world through the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement. The determination of an oppressed group to change society in a non-violent manner, with love, patience, and a willingness to pay the personal costs, showed us that there is a place for crazy utopianism – that we can “fight” in a way that does not involve violence, in a manner that attempts to humanize everyone, on all sides of a line or spectrum of privilege and oppression.
It is not easy – at all – but it is possible, and I believe it is really the only practical way to create positive change.
So it is not surprising that so many movements compare themselves to the black American Civil Rights Movement. Sometimes this causes consternation; it shouldn’t. In the wake of Proposition 8 passing in California (which banned same-sex marriage), the movement for LGBTQ equality gained new strength. Many compared it to the original Civil Rights Movement, and many blacks (particularly those who were opposed to same-sex marriage) took umbrage at the comparison, perhaps feeling that it was an attempt to usurp their proud legacy.
On the contrary, these comparisons are the greatest compliment. I capitalize the Civil Rights Movement for a reason – it was the non-violent struggle for civil rights in the United States, and it succeeded despite intense, violent opposition. It set the bar for all further non-violent campaigns. When someone compares their movement to the Civil Rights Movement, it is because they have been inspired by it, and hope to emulate it. The Civil Rights Movement was a shining example of the absolute best of humanity and human values confronting inhumanity, and succeeding.
The people of the world owe the Civil Rights Movement and its participants a huge debt of gratitude. Their actions profoundly expanded “the realm of the possible”. The continuing movements for social justice, for equality for all, and for the recognition of the full humanity of every single human being are a partial repayment of that debt and a testament to the enduring power and legacy of that mass movement.