The U.S. Civil Rights Movement’s Global Presence

The Civil Rights movement has a world-class reputation as a success story. Many people around the world readily identify images of Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks. This global recognition is true of other leading freedom fighters as well, like Crazy Horse or Che Guevara, whose images grace the walls of seedy bars in many countries. Such global freedom fighters are easier to applaud than anyone involved in a local fight, which may be either too controversial to mention, or too full of self-interested political manuevers to be inspirational.

In Britain, the materials for teaching the Civil Rights movement are readily available and easy to integrate smoothly into school and university curriculums. At times, though, the recourse to the U.S. Civil Rights movement can lead to a familiar complacency, a sense that discrimination and injustice are always about racism, and that racism is always against people of African descent, and that racism is worse in the United States than in Britain. In Britain the word race is placed in inverted commas, as if the word itself is the problem, and people often believe that the 1960s finished off the country’s struggles with racism. The pedagogical Civil Rights movement can make the struggle for justice seem like a problem that is over there.

Image credit: Stephanie Palmer

Image credit: Stephanie Palmer

There are many other struggles of the present day or of history that have different characteristics. Black people in the United States were never under any illusions that they were disenfranchised or impoverished. Other groups around the world who have been discriminated against for their ethnicity, colour, or religion often believed that they belonged as well as anybody until suddenly neighbours and work colleagues turned against them. Although white Americans in the U.S. South often expressed their prejudice loudly and intemperately, other people suffer from authorities that adopt a pose of reason and calm. That is the story told in the young adult books about the Holocaust, like Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, or Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. People who are considered ‘model’ minorities because they were admitted to the country only because of their skills and qualifications might feel like they belong one day and find over time that a thousand micro exclusions have finally worn on them. Why is it that dog owners in Notts allow their dogs to foul the foreigners’ houses? What will this micro problem lead to?

The Civil Rights Movement and interconnected Second Wave feminist movement taught people that starving a child is violence, as Coretta Scott King is quoted as saying in the exhibition. Yet they also taught people that discrimination takes subtle forms that also need to be countered. The findings of social psychologist Kenneth Clark that black children’s self-esteem suffered long-term problems because of segregated schools were cited in the U.S. Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education. Feminist philosopher Marilyn Frye compares oppression to a birdcage, where a single bar of the cage would not cause many difficulties on its own but the system works to constrain people (‘Oppression,’ Politics of Reality – Essays in Feminist Theory, 1983). Rob Nixon theorises that poor people today suffer from ‘slow violence’, the long-term effects of environmental degradation that cause displacement and social conflict but can be easily ignored by capitalism or a media wedded to spectacle (Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor [2013]). These subtle forms of violence have also been the lesson of the Civil Rights movement.

Museums and educators can adopt strategies to ensure that teaching people about the U.S. Civil Rights movement does not breed complacency but inspires them to act to counter injustice themselves, and the Journey to Justice Exhibit is exemplary in its use of them. The exhibition features the stories of people who were not the leaders. It traces the many connections between the U.S. movement and its U.K. support systems and parallel movements. It tells about Dave Godin, born in Peckham in 1936, who founded the Tamla Motown Appreciation Society, and who greeted American Motown artists when they toured Britain, or John Petts, a Welsh artist who raised money and replaced a stained-glass window in an Alabama church destroyed by racists. ‘Wales is renowned for its love of peace and for its international outlook’, he was quoted as saying by the Western Mail in 1963. As galling as such statements often are, this nationalist self-pride was galvanised for the common good.

The exhibition makes it clear that the struggle for racial justice is related to the struggle for economic, gender, and sexual justice. It links the Civil Rights movement to U.K. football’s Kick It Out campaign, which tackles hate speech against blacks, Jews, and homosexuality on the pitch. A map locates many different struggles for justice throughout Great Britain and Ireland, including a mass movement of the poor in 1381, led by a woman called Johanna Ferror, for an end to serfdom and unfair taxes, in a struggle that would take centuries to resolve. A banner by Roger Tanner and Jagdish Patel traces activism and social change from 1800 to the present, including a 1936 clash on Trent Bridge between the British Union of Fascists and local people. It would be nice to see more reference to local conflicts between Catholics or Jews and Protestants or the experiences of political refugees or economic migrants. But a colour photo collage of recent marches and protests in Nottingham provides visual impact of local activity.

The exhibition offers opportunities for visitors to interact, from a series of excellent (and excellently penned) poems by local schoolchildren written to Ruby Bridges, the first African American child to be granted access to a white school after desegregation, to an invitation to fill in the map of Britain and Ireland with other examples of struggles for injustice, which visitors have filled in with interesting examples.

People teaching literature related to the U.S. Civil Rights movement can adopt many of the same approaches as the exhibit. They can make connections between black American and black British writing. When Alice Walker wrote Meridian, a novel about the Civil Rights movement featured in the events’ programme, she was well aware of the parallel development of black British writing. A chapter of her essay collection In Search of Our Mothers discusses the novel Second Class Citizen by black British writer Buchi Emecheta. I don’t agree with Walker that Emecheta’s book is ‘not stylistically exciting’ -- I prefer Emecheta’s realist style to Walker’s postmodern diffuseness. However reading the chapter teaches us that activist-writers learn from each other.

Teachers can also link racial injustice to other forms of injustice. Walker’s novel Meridian is a laboratory of different kinds of prejudice, labelling, and violence. Students can write a list of the novel’s instances of labelling, misunderstanding, and physical violence. The character of Meridian is condemned by her mother, who wants her to sacrifice herself for her child, denigrated by the faculty at Saxon College, who strive to turn black girls like Meridian into docile ladies, condescended to by the leaders of the movement, who expect her to make coffee or commit to their ideas for activism, treated as sexual beings but not marriage material by black male activists in their quest for sex and glory, and beaten by the police. Students should also be invited to reflect on instances of labelling, misunderstanding, or physical violence in their own experiences. Have they themselves be assaulted or labelled or condescended to? Are there instances when they have mislabelled somebody else? Did they find a way to live together anyway with that person? Have they been involved in an organisation that, like the movement in Walker’s novel, privileges some people’s participation over others? Teachers should make it clear that struggles for respect are related to struggles for justice, and that racial justice is not reducible to economic justice alone. Using the kind of strategies used by the exhibit, pedagogical Civil Rights movement should continue to inspire.