Reflections on the civil rights movement from Brian Hosmer, H.G. Barnard Associate Professor of Western American History, for TU’s 2017 MLK Day celebration.
I’m 56 years old and as a young person observed the heyday of the Martin Luther King-era civil rights movement. I remember when he was murdered, and in the aftermath, trying to understand what civil rights meant. I was 8 years old and from a solidly middle class white family and community. So, to the extent I am capable of representing my childhood mind, my earliest impressions of civil rights were, in a way, distant. I knew discrimination was wrong and unfair, but certainly was ignorant of its fuller dimensions. I did not understand how discrimination felt to those discriminated against.
I begin with that reflection as a way to think deeply about how the notion, perhaps even definition, of civil rights has changed over these decades. When I came of age, civil rights largely meant securing to everyone the liberties guaranteed by our constitution and promoting the practices and habits — and expectations — of a fully integrated society. Judging people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, to put it simply.
But is that what we mean today? Clearly not. One of the more important and complicated aspects of our decades-long struggle to secure civil rights has been its expanding definition. Happily we now look at civil rights in a broader framework that we might describe as social justice, human rights, natural rights and basic decency. Full equality for all regardless of who they are, who they love, what they believe, how they appear to others. This is a remarkable development, it seems to me, because it moves us beyond ‘integration,’ one of King’s primary objectives, to respect for diversity. Civil rights now encompass the right to be who you are, and not simply a plea to be included.
This is important to what I do in my professional life. As a student of American Indian history, I am reminded of the particular character of justice when it comes to indigenous communities. Decades ago, the great Dakota philosopher and activist Vine Deloria Jr. reminded good liberals that Indian people were not agitating for civil rights if by that we mean inclusion or integration. Rather, they were — and are — demanding to live as they would and be who they are. They are demanding their rights as nations whose status is promised and protected by treaties and a nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government. Theirs is the language of sovereignty.
Back then, this was a difficult concept for liberals and conservatives to appreciate. “Isn’t the goal full integration?” they would ask. “Don’t we desire an end to looking at race or other characteristics, that distinguish people from one another? Are separate rights ultimately the same thing as ‘discrimination?’”
One of the heartening aspects of our ongoing conversation has been its capacity to grow. So when we think of civil rights today, we can appreciate that respecting difference is not a return to discrimination but a broader appreciation for the beauty and value of every person, and culture, and race, and belief and capacity.
That is a truly expansive notion, and we should be grateful to King for articulating a message with the capacity to grow beyond his own experiences and perhaps even his own perspectives. We are talking about human rights more than civil rights these days — and that is positive, in my view.
But still, there is more. If King were alive today he would be justly proud of the journey we’ve taken, but saddened — I think — by the persistence of instruments and structures and beliefs that hold some people back. And bothered by fact that race — how people look — or culture or even geography still prevent so many people from full participation in our society. We are re-segregating our schools and communities. Crime is down in affluent neighborhoods but a scourge to others, urban and rural alike. Opportunity too often follows socio-economic position. We no longer appreciate the vital role ‘public space’ and public accommodations play to our broader liberties. And make no mistake, civil rights are being eroded, from voter suppression to defunding public education to gerrymandered districts. To my mind, we need to state clearly and directly that this is being done deliberately and for political gain. We need to recognize and denounce the use of bigoted language to corrupt our political discourse.
But we also need to think about opportunity.
What is needed is a recommitment to some of the principles King and so many others fought and died to secure. It is well known that in his later days, MLK spoke forcefully about poverty and war. He saw securing economic and social justice as the critical next steps in this long journey. He understood who sacrificed life and limb on the battlefield and who profited from war.
This was the critical link that he saw — and for which he was roundly criticized. It is a message Nelson Mandela also articulated. And it is our responsibility to recommit ourselves to the protection of the gains we’ve made, the expansive notion of civil rights — toward human rights — we now appreciate and the understanding that without social and economic justice, our rights — our way of life — is endangered.
I was struck by one line in President Obama’s farewell address. If I may paraphrase, he observed that if every economic challenge is cast as a struggle between a hard-working white male and an undeserving minority, then all workers will suffer while the wealthy few retreat to their private enclaves.
That future is unacceptable. Understanding the importance of economic justice — the existence of class distinctions in our society — must not, as some say, come at the expense of notions of identity or the appreciation of the great diversity of experiences and perspectives that shape our lives. We don’t have to choose between economic justice and identity. We can and must think more broadly.
And that challenge is what civil rights means to me.