"Everything Changed, but Ain't Nothing Changed": Recovering a Generation of Southern Activists for Economic Justice
Thuesen, Sarah C., Southern Cultures
The passing of forty years since the tragic death of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. has prompted many Americans to look back at the late 1960s and take stock of where we are today. In 2001 the Southern Oral History Program (SOHP) made the complexities of that collective reckoning the centerpiece of "The Long Civil Rights Movement: The South Since the 1960s" (LCRM), a study of the post-1960s South, emphasizing school desegregation, economic justice, gender equality, gay liberation, and other social justice struggles. As SOHP director Jacquelyn Dowd Hall argued at the inception of this project, public memory often distorts the history of the Civil Rights Movement by suggesting that it reached its resolution by the late 1960s. This version of the past not only obscures the Movement's more radical aims but also ignores an entire generation of activists who sought to protect and extend the legacies of the 1960s. Their stories are essential for reckoning with the region's past and shaping its future. (1)
The LCRM project's fieldwork emphasizes the exciting potential for linking memories of the recent past with urgent questions of social justice in the present-day South. After conducting over one hundred oral histories of school desegregation in four main sites--Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Charlotte, North Carolina; Birmingham, Alabama; Louisville, Kentucky--the SOHP began in the summer of 2005 to explore the history of post-1960s economic justice activism. (2) At that time, project coordinators anticipated that their biggest challenge might be to convey the objectives of the project to a broad public audience. While school desegregation constitutes a readily remembered--if often misremembered--moment in southern history, economic justice activism in the post-1960s South comprises a less familiar and direct narrative, taking the form of many different movements with wide-ranging goals. Moreover, the economic story that often dominates popular renderings of recent southern history is the rise of the Sunbelt and regional prosperity. For multiple reasons, then, the SOHP research team wondered whether an oral history project centered on economic justice struggles would resonate with public memories of the post-1960s South.
About two months into this research, however, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, and suddenly it seemed that the South's struggle for economic justice was no longer a forgotten story in need of recovery but rather the story of the moment. Yet the flurry of media attention presented new distortions of southern history, often suggesting that the poverty of New Orleans was an isolated tragedy rather than part of a larger regional pattern. Moreover, many media reports suggested that Hurricane Katrina awakened a nation that for more than a generation had failed to pay attention to issues of race and class. As historian Paul Ortiz recently argued, such claims ignored the fact that many social policies of the past thirty years were carefully "formulated more on the basis of enhancing the race and class privileges of the few rather than delivering the greatest good to the many." (3)
As the work of the "Long Civil Rights Movement" initiative reveals, post-Katrina claims about America's inattention to matters of race and class also ignored the efforts of an entire generation of activists for economic justice. In 2006 SONY interviewers traveled to New Orleans and returned to earlier LCRM project sites in search of those activists. (4) Their stories collectively situate the social justice struggles of New Orleans in a broader chronological and regional narrative. In Birmingham, Charlotte, and Louisville, the SOHP team interviewed over seventy members of those communities representing a rich variety of southern economic justice activism: foot soldiers in the War on Poverty who extended their work beyond the 1960s; fair housing advocates; legal aid attorneys; environmental justice activists; residents of low-income neighborhoods undergoing urban "revitalization"; pioneering "firsts" who helped to desegregate the southern labor market; and union organizers in the South's new and old industrial sectors. …