Frank P. Hixon Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago.
I just want to start with what I was alluding to earlier; the term Civil Rights has different meanings through different times. Just give me a cursory understanding of what we mean by Civil Rights, maybe when we're talking the 60’s versus today.
Depends on who the "we" are, who do you mean by the "we"? In general the term civil rights, in particular, refer to civil rights - I think it's generally come to have the connotation of progress for black people. That's civil rights, right? And it can be a discussion about something that's completely economic - well, the economic is not - economic progress is not a citizenship right, but if it concerns black Americans, it'll be regarded as part of the civil rights movement so that all black leaders tend to be discussed as if they are civil rights leaders. Well, not that they're doing anything that by any stretch of the imagination could be connected to actual rights.
What about the term social justice? I think that's a very nebulous term, how do you see it?
I think it's nebulous and to some degree it's probably valuable for the people who use that term because my sense is that the only people that use that term are people who are in favor about the things you're talking about, and it allows them to create a language that helps them present several different kinds of movements as being unified in the sense that they're all connected to this thing-social justice.
Are they connected?
Well, again, you have to talk about which particular movement you're talking about. I mean, all of them are in some way - most of them are in some ways challenging ingrained forms of inequality. So, at that very broad level you can say that there are connections, but then within each of those, right, there are all these complicated tendencies and currents, and all the more so across them. So, it's hard to say.
It's hard to define it. It seems like we look at this as a radical process that's outside, as opposed to looking at it as a democratic process. Is activism radical or is it part of a natural process?
Yeah, you could get back to problems of definition, what you mean by radical? My sense of it is, that in the 1960’s there were very few folk who thought of most student activism as radical, that is going to demonstrations against the war. At one point I would say even being a part of women's liberation's organizations on college campuses and much of the contrary. I was feeling mainstream activity, right, on the other hand if my memory of the polls are right something like a million college students, by the end of the 1960’s, self-described as radical. And I think that what they mean by that is not so much a reference to anything they were particularly doing, what they meant by that would have been something a reference to their belief that a fundamental restructuring of society, along some lines-usually economic lines, so not all lines, certainly often gender lines-that some fundamental restructuring of society was necessary.
And what about today?
Well, today from my viewpoint the term has sort of lost very much descriptive utility, it is used so loosely that things that would most certainly have been regarded as mainstream activity in much of our history, is called radical, right? It's become, it's almost as if radical has assembled a kind of rhetorical utility that communists would have had in the 1960’s - it's a broad, open-ended negative category that one uses to shut down discussion. There is very little that I think of as radical discourse in this country today. In fact, I need a few minutes to think about what I would put that - that is to say, discourse saying fundamental institutional change, that's hard. The country’s moved so far to the right, in the way in which public discourse that we're calling things radical that (chuckle) that would not be called radical in virtually every society.
What part does activism play in a democratic society? Is it something that is fundamental to our experience?
I mean, I certainly would say that it's hard to conceive of why you would call a society democratic if the possibility of activism weren't there. That is to say, if people didn't have the right and the capacity to step outside of electoral politics and to express their own conception of their future, to have and that resident phrase from SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), some voice in the decisions which affect their lives. Yeah, I think it's absolutely fundamental to the activist process, and even in a good society, in a relatively egalitarian and just society I would still make the assumption that societies aren't stable, and that activism operates as a kind of check on the system and it keeps it from going too far in the direction of serving the needs and the interests of people at the top. So, yes I think activism-the activist possibility is very much a necessary part of democracy.
You mentioned SNCC, describe that for people who are not familiar with it.
Student Non-Violent Co-coordinating Committee, is an organization, primarily college students - in the beginning primarily southern black college students, although it was always integrated - that coming out of the sit-ins became the source of tactile innovation for the larger movement, became a source of standard studying for the larger movement in that SNCC was among the groups that pushed the more established and conservative organizations into taking the chance on working in in dangerous deep south states. It took the movement out of the cities and into the rural areas.
What about other voices we don’t associate with activism, the Tea Party for example?
Oh sure, I mean, they're stepping it - if activism begins at the point where one steps outside of institutionalized channels for making change, they may be in the process of becoming a part of the institutional mix. But no, I think it's definitely a form of activism.
So tell me that again, what is that definition of activism?
Oh, I was saying that one way to think about what activism is, is that activism - those forms of trying to change the economy, and the polity which step outside of the institutional channels which are already there. So, if you're a member of the Republican party and you're very active, that's one thing, but if you're stepping outside that context to try to do the same thing - that's a very different thing, at least that's the assumption that I'm making.
You were a student activist. What did you do?
Student power movement took different forms for black and white students, so that I was a part of their earliest wave of non-athletic black students at Syracuse University, and I became, actually, the President of the Student African American Society at a time when our agenda is largely more blacks on campus, creating an African American Studies Department, more support from the university for people in the neighboring ghetto. So, that was sort of one part of what I was doing, but I was also growing up in a milieu of, as I was saying earlier, today of community action. So that community action projects were all over the place, and so was education organizing, so those were the part of the kinds of things I spent the most time on in college.
Was there a particular spirit of activism that you saw in the 60’s? I know earlier you talked about the empowerment of activism, that on one hand it was very empowering for people who were involved. Did you see that personal growth from people?
All the time. But not just in the 60’s. I mean that's when much of my adult life in Chicago, which is still heavily influenced by the Alinsky tradition, and whatever else one says, Alinsky keeps a clear focus on developing on developing leadership, and you do see people - I just heard a woman a couple of weeks ago - newly immigrated from Mexico, came from a kind of culture in which women did not speak back to their husbands, got involved with a community organization and now it's almost as if her husband is afraid to speak to her. That was the tone of - that she became more confident, she realized that she could have ideas, she realized she could have an impact on her own community - she's a different, transformed person. So, yes, there are groups in the 60’s which are articulating that in one way, but absolutely, where one finds community organizing, one still finds that kind of transformation of people.
Yeah, describe that a little bit more. Why is it that community activism transforms people?
I think we can say something about certain parts of it. One part of it is being able to see the connection between a rotting shack and a rotting America, and that phrase is from Charlie Cobb, it was in one of his manifestos about Freedom Schools, and so really what he was saying is that you got to be able to see the connection between your personal life, your personal issues and the structural political context in which you're operating. I was thinking earlier today in response to one of the panelists, that one of the great absences in American social discourse is a clear understanding of social structure and so that people want to reduce everything to individuals, and how individuals act, how individuals feel and so that prejudice is a function of how I feel about you, and the idea of racism as a system built into institutions. We don't get that as well. So, at least one part of what people get from organizing is exposed to bodies of ideas about how the personal problems in their lives are connected to larger sets of social and political issues. That’s one part of it. I think the other part of it is just exposure to lots of different viewpoints, when you talk to people about what they got out of SNCC, it was just being in a room where people who disagreed with one another were mounting eloquent, compelling arguments for a whole variety of different viewpoints, and then you’re left to sift out and figure out what makes sense to you, what what works for you, and that's fully a part of what's grown. Then the other is just putting people into positions where they can learn from their own mistakes, right? Where they've made a decision, they're invested in it, and then it goes this way or it goes that way, but because it was their decision they’re going to learn more from it then they would if someone had made a decision for them.
And there's also a flipside, in that it's hard and costly on a psychological level, an emotional level. I've talked to students who are active and they don't have time to go to classes, or work-
Describe that, on one level it feeds you and on the other level it eats you up.
Well, it's part of the ways in which the 60’s have done us a disservice is that they've constructed a sense of activism is all-consuming, and activists shouldn't have insurance, right? An activist should be totally devoted to the cause. It's just not a realistic way to think about how people are going to live their lives, but what one of the things that that means is that in a great many activist circles there is not much attention being paid to-among activists, to sort of taking care of themselves or to taking care of one another. It's one of the exceptions - I'm having trouble thinking of one right now, actually. One of the interesting things to do is talk to the children of activists, who often become conservative, because from their viewpoint activism is what took their parents away from them, and so if they don't, maybe conservative's not the right word, but they become kind of socially withdrawn, and resentful.
Earlier in a lecture, you were talking about how the 60’s gave a disservice in making these heroic figures, describe that.
Well, I think - all I was saying is that students today think that students during the iconic 60’s-activists and that, were more effective, they stopped the war, they ended Jim Crow, and that the reason that they did that is because they were smarter, they had better tactics, they were just larger and so that I think a part of what students learn by - part of what's important that students learn from studying the 60’s is that the people who led progress were flawed people, they were people just like you, right? And so that you don't feel that sense of distance between them and you.
That you actually can make change yourself.
And if they could do it, you could do it, right? Whereas if you put Martin Luther King on some pedestal, and he was the leader, well you can't be Martin Luther King.
Do we have a skewed memory of what the movement was- It seems like all we hear about is Martin Luther King, Jr and prominent individuals. We talk about the leadership and ignore those on the ground doing the work.
For most Americans the movement is pretty much Dr. King, and then to some degree the Kennedy Brothers come into the story, and to some degree maybe the Supreme Court comes into the story. But most Americans in the case of Dr. King, for example, have no idea how long the struggle in Montgomery over public transportation, over insults to black woman on buses, easily a decade before Dr. King comes to Montgomery the struggle is going on. The black community in Montgomery well before Dr. King had come to town had decided that there was going to be a protest. Rosa Parks was, if my memory is right, the third case considered to be the basis of the protest; the others were for various reasons not do-able, but all of that is to say Dr. King is stepping out on a stage that's been created for other people. Now, once he gets onto that stage he does some remarkable things that most other folk would not have been able to do, but he doesn't create the movement, right? Uh as Diana Nash said, he didn't make the movement, the movement made him.
So who made up the movement?
The movement’s made up by hundreds, thousands of folk that are historically invisible and anonymous. One way to say it, there is one wing of them come from strong religious backgrounds, people who are committed to say Gandhi and non-violence, that's one string. Another string of them come from the servicemen, I'm thinking primarily of black servicemen now, who served in World War II and came back with a whole different sense of entitlement about being an American citizen, the Mississippi sent close to ninety thousand black men into the service, right? And they come back changed, they come back empowered, both empowered and entitled. There's a middle class stream that for me is represented by the NAACP, which sets up these string of court victories, which by 1944, gets the white primary outlawed which then becomes over the next seven or eight years the basis of probably most black political organizing in the deep south state. The fact that blacks can no longer be excluded from primary, so but somebody has to organize at the ground level, somebody's got to be willing to walk folk down to the registration office, somebody has to be willing to teach people how to take the test we have to pass. So, it - all those streams sort of come together with increasing intensity in the 50’s and 60’s to create the movement.
Discuss that importance of that it is this individual activism as a collective, but it's the ordinary person-that's the power. What reaction do you get from your students, after talking about the movement as an individual movement?
I think there's two, at least two obvious reactions. One, is the idea that, I've been cheated in the sense that I wasn't exposed to this view of history before, that's one. Two, I was saying earlier today, especially for black students, a sense of deep or greater respect for their ancestors, right? For the folk they identify with in the past. And the third thing I think I would add to that, would be that they come away feeling more confident that they can do something that matters. Now the definition of what matters, that also changes in the course of the process, but again there's this notion that if those people could do something significant, than I can do something significant. And also to some degree along with that even a sense of obligation, that if I can do it, I should it, right? So I have to find a way to make a difference.
hat's an interesting sense of obligation to have.
n your book, the phrase 'I've got the light of freedom", what does that mean to you? Describe that.
In some ways, it really should - it would've been a more appropriate title to say 'we've got the light of freedom', since the movement’s culture is so much focus on emotional collectivity, and people having collective self-confidence in one another, believing that if I step out you will step out with me, you won't leave me out there by myself. Beyond that, I don't know if you saw the Bernice Reagon - it was a film clip that we showed, someone showed this afternoon, and Bernice Reagon was talking about 'I’ve got the light of, I've got the light of freedom', and what she was saying is that it's an arrogant song, that it's saying that wherever I go, no matter what the context is, I'm going to project myself, right? I'm not going to hide myself; I'm going to transform things. It's a very confident and arrogant kind of piece, arrogant maybe-I know what she means, I probably wouldn't use that word, but I think it captures it well. It's about self-proclamation.
Describe that voice of self-proclamation. What is that sense?
There is an interview with Ida Mae Holland, who's an activist from Mississippi, from Greenwood, and she's describing taking black woman down to register, and I can't capture her words exactly from memory, but the point she makes is they walked with this heavy tread, right? As if they were marching, that they knew that something, and their (chests) were sticking out in front of them like this, is what she said, as they walk with a really erect posture - that is, they knew they were doing something that was important, that was a test, and that they were passing it.
We study the 60’s and we look at activism, and then it almost feels like there's this big gap and then we have activism today. It feels like the way it is discussed isn't put in a continuum. Are there big gaps or is there a continuum of student activism?
Wait a minute, but social movements don't operate continuously, I mean they ebb and flow, so I think most scholars say that we've had three significant waves of feminism, you could argue that depending on where you are, you know black activism is rampant in the 1870’s. The turn of the century, a lot of people called the nadir. Then both wars re-generate activism, then the 1950’s are quiescent. I would not expect, there aren't galvanizing issues all of the time and the 60’s brought several galvanizing issues, and one threat-one enormous threat, which was the draft, together at one time. So, I don't see anything either surprising or problematic in the ebb and flow of activist intensity.
It’s just a natural process.
It's a natural process.
We need both, grass roots and top-down leadership-
It seems like we need all the different sides.
Like you said earlier, we focus so much on the top-down-
Why is it important to recognize and talk about the grass roots side?
Because if you don't do that, you sure don't understand what much of the movement's stand is coming from, and if you want to think in terms of connections or cross-activist generations to the degree that people are dependent upon a top-down conception of leadership then they have a smaller tool kit of ideas to draw from.
What do you say to students who feel that racism, and issues around racism, have changed, they are much more vaporous. It isn't so overt. What do you say to students when they say, "I don't know what to fight anymore?"
It depends on what you mean by everything. If, you want to say that the mechanisms which create inequality are more difficult to see now than they were, oh yeah we don't have southern sheriffs, we don't have outright racial terrorism. You can no longer shoot blacks down in the streets, you no longer have laws restricting blacks. So, in that sense in terms of the mechanisms creating inequality, they’re certainly not as visible as they were, they become more fragmented and more complicated, but if the issue is, is there inequality? That’s not much harder to see, right? I mean you almost have to make yourself blind to not see the inequality by class, by race, in many important respects, by gender, and so that if one insists on what I want to do is attack the mechanisms, that's one thing. If one says I want to work on the problem then everybody go out and work on equalizing school funding, right? That problem is there, it doesn't attract the kind of attention from people who are inclined toward activism that it should, given it's importance, because I think it just doesn't fall in that category of the kind of things people were attacking in the 60’s, but in terms of the kinds of issues which in fact are going to have an impact on children's lives, that's it. That's one of them.
What would you say to students who ask "where do I start?"
Wherever you are, I mean, there are some issues around you. I mean, there are always children who need support. It's important, I think, to get involved. Charles Sherrod, one of the SNCC activists, says when you go into a town you don't really know who controls that town, right? Because things are so hidden and tangled and so much is happening in places where you can't be, and so you just got to start somewhere and then see where that leads, and so that's essentially what I would say to young people - you start somewhere, you don't have to start on the barricades, you start working on the issues which surround you, you do it with it a critical, questioning mind, you do it always with an eye toward looking for linkages between that issue and other issues, and sometimes your work will in fact lead you to things you can't see until you do the work. What's destructive is waiting around for the right issue to sort of drop into your lap. There's a lot of stuff out there to work on.
Why is it that students become activists?
Sorry. Students are at a point in life where they just have a lot more freedom than anyone else. They don't have mortgages yet, they don't have families yet, their time is structured in the same way, whereas if one person's a cab driver, another is a long haul truck driver, another is a teacher - their time is not structured in the same way. So, they can't come together for a meeting as easily as students. The fact that students tend to be surrounded by hundreds if not thousands of folk who may be potentially like-minded, I think it is largely that.
And they question everything.
Yeah, and they question everything. Yeah, I think that's a significant part of it.
In your talk you say the way we collectively remember the movement isn't the same as how people who were active remember it; in a way have we romanticized-
Oh, there's no question. There's no question.
Describe what we've done-
Well, we have looked back and created a movement that was a consensus movement, a movement that was successful because it was a moral appeal. In point of fact, at the time there's always great controversy about the movement. I don't - some of these figures I'm pretty sure of, in 1963 before any civil rights acts have been passed, right, any of the civil rights acts of that decade have been passed, before the march on Washington, sixty-three percent of Americans thought the march on Washington was a bad idea. I'm pretty sure a majority of the Americans said the Kennedy administration, which in the eyes of activists at the time had done nothing, they were quite embittered at the Kennedy administration, but a pretty comfortable majority of Americans thought the Kennedy's were pushing civil rights too fast. When we look back at it at the march on Washington in particular, we see that as a great moment of national unity, not if you were there, right? If you were there you had to argue with a lot of people to justify your being there, and many folk thought it would kill the prospects for the civil rights bill.
Is there anything you want to add, especially around this notion of bottom-up organization and the importance of it, especially for students today?
No, I mean the only thing I would say is that when students look back at the 60’s, they get all of these images of media-oriented, speech-oriented leadership and so that leadership which is more developmentally, leadership was more-which is more focused on the development of leadership in others, to use a SNCC kind of phrase, is just not visible to this generation. That's one of the reasons I think, that they say, "gee, I want to do something but I don't know what to do." If you think of it from the other viewpoint, then there's always something to do.