Collective Memory, Collective Action,
and Black Activism in the 1960s
FREDRICK C. HARRIS
The essays by Minow in this volume touch on a variety of themes that explore the consequences of memory and hate. Collective violence, trauma, forced forgetting, the call for reparations, efforts to curtail hate speech, truth commissions, and the like are all, in some way, linked to the role that collective memory plays in the political life of social groups. Without some sustained memory of past injustices and victories over past harms, social groups would not be able to map the courses of action to consider in their organized opposition against hate. Noting the positive and negative consequences of a society confronting its past, Minow observes in “Memory and Hate” that the “failure to remember, collectively, triumphs and accomplishments diminishes us. But failure to remember, collectively, injustice and cruelty is an ethical breach.” This essay explores the evolution of collective memories by considering how the social construction of past events by social groups can serve as a catalyst for collective action. It does so through an illustration of how events related to the struggle for racial justice—both triumphant and tragic events—served as a catalyst for black political activism during the modern civil rights movement in the United States.
The influence of collective memory on the political action of social groups has received scant attention from scholars of collective action. Though research in public opinion formation demonstrates how significant historical events shape political attitudes, theoretical perspectives on collective action have not provided guidance on how the collective memory of social groups might influence the ability of individuals to engage in cooperative action. This omission in theories of collective action is surprising. As scholars in a variety of disciplines have demonstrated, historical events often have long-term consequences, shaping the way individuals interpret the political world. The memory of the Vietnam