From Birmingham to Ferguson
Changing times and social media have affected the way the civil rights message is spread
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Not much can stay the same over 50 years, and civil rights activism is not immune to change — but what’s the difference between Black Lives Matter and the plain old civil rights movement? Is it really just a hashtag?
University of Toledo history instructor Jason Jordan said it’s not so simple. Jordan said both movements have groups of people with overlapping opinions, but not necessarily identical opinions.
“We tend to think of the civil rights movement as this monolithic thing where everybody is on the same page, everybody has the same goals, they agree on the same tactics, and it really couldn’t be further from the truth,” Jordan said. “Some people go as far as saying there wasn’t one civil rights movement, but [many] civil rights movements … because there was such a diversity of thought.”
Jordan said activism battles before 1960 were mostly fought in the halls of government. Think of Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. However, when activists at the time lost their faith in the ability to make change from within the system, action-oriented groups started popping up.
“People started to realize that real change in society wasn’t going to come solely from the courtrooms,” Jordan said. “Take for instance all of the student activism that you see across the country today … a lot of that … reminds me very much of the types of young-person- or student-led activism that you saw in the mid-to-late [1960s].”
Jordan said he sees similarities between different movements, even across generational lines. He said the surge of young adults in the Black Lives Matter movement reminds him of the 1960s Black Power movement.
“It tends to be younger, college-age students who are kind of cynics, tired of banging their heads against [the] brick wall holding them back,” Jordan said.
One brick wall in the way of progress is the belief that race issues are a thing of the past, which Jordan said can slow things down.
“[Activists] kind of get frustrated with what they see as this slow pace of change in American society, and just kind of a general apathy to issues having to deal with race,” he said. “So there’s a lot of frustration, there’s a lot of anger, there’s a lot of discontent that you can see bubbling to the surface.”
Now, the slow march of progress may be upping the tempo. In the 1960s, activists had to deal without the advantage of tweets or viral videos, a luxury the Black Lives Matter movement enjoys.
David Young, director of the Office of Excellence, which operates an educational program for underprivileged youth, said social media brings advantages to an activist movement. Raising awareness about social issues and documenting evidence of incidents like police killings is much easier with the help of modern technology.
But every coin has two sides, and Young said social media is no exception. The lightning-fast speed of social media means both successes and mistakes are amplified to an unprecedented level.
“We just always have to remember to be responsible in sharing … just as exciting as this instant news is, and instant awareness is, there’s a level of responsibility that has to come with that as well,” Young said. “As their tweet goes out, the judgment of the tweet is just as instantaneous.”
UT is no stranger to activism or the Black Lives Matter movement. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2015, a group of 30 protestors interrupted the annual Unity Celebration by approaching the stage and chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” The protest lasted several minutes before the ceremony could continue.
Unity Celebration organizers and attendees were not upset by the demonstration, but more intense demonstrations across the country have received criticism for being too disruptive. Jordan said it’s hard to draw the line between reason and excess, especially when many protestors believe disruption is necessary for change.
Young has his own experiences in student activism to draw from. He was involved in the campaign to ask UT to divest from the South African apartheid in his college years. Looking back on his involvement, he said it’s important to strategize.
“You’ve got to be prepared, you have to do your research, it has to make sense, you have to make sure that you’re well-informed,” Young said. “And sometimes there’s a tendency to move out of emotion rather than real understanding of what the situation is, and what the problem is, and students have to guard against that.”