Dreams of a Bygone Era? Re-Envisioning Civil Rights in the Modern Age

By Lee, Kristine | Harvard International Review, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Dreams of a Bygone Era? Re-Envisioning Civil Rights in the Modern Age


Lee, Kristine, Harvard International Review


In August of 1963, the United States was swept up in unprecedented mass mobilization. Two hundred thousand Americans--black, white, rich, and poor from across the nation--poured into the National Mall in Washington, D.C. armed with picket signs, freedom songs, and a fervent dedication to the light for equality before the law. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the venue at which Martin Luther King Jr. uttered his lamed "I have a dream" incantation, was a watershed moment in the long and tumultuous civil rights struggle in the United States.

It set' forth new genre of civil rights activism and became a template for subsequent generations of political protest around the globe. Indeed, over the course of the ensuing decade, university students in France aligned themselves with trade union workers to subvert the Gaullist regime, the military dictatorship in Brazil struggled to withstand the escalating guerilla warfare leveled against it, and opposition to the Vietnam War simmered across the United States, London, Paris, Berlin, and Rome.

Today, five decades after the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement, the international community's gaze remains fixed on Cairo and the tumultuous rise and fall of the pro-Morsi protest camps erected in Tahrir Square this summer. As the world comes to grips with the recurring stumbling blocks to stable, responsible governance in transitional democracies in the Middle East, it is an apt time to take stock of what civil rights means to Americans and in the modern world.

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The Long March

Civil unrest around the world and civil rights activism in the United States in particular, is all but moribund. Americans still take to the streets, driven by the compulsion to close the gap between the rhetoric of freedom emanating from the nation's founding documents and the social reality that surrounds us.

In July of this past summer, several hundred protestors amassed outside of the federal courthouse in Washington demanding justice for the murdered Trayvon Martin in the days immediately following George Zimmerman's acquittal. As pockets of protestors across the nation rallied and chanted, there were glimmers of the old solidarity that their predecessors touted during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the seminal anti-discrimination legislation in the 20th century United States, the tenor of civil rights activism has, inevitably, changed. Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. was celebrated as the indefatigable political and spiritual leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Today, in our historical moment, the defenseless Trayvon Martin has become the new face of civil rights justice. Dr. King was a symbol of renewed agency for marginalized communities, while Trayvon Martin is a harrowing reminder of the ongoing victimization of these communities in the United States today.

The national understanding of what "civil rights" means has evolved in step with social reality, thus altering the tenor of political discourse. The modern day civil rights struggle, though rooted deeply in the vocabulary of race relations, is not exclusively defined by it, as racism is no longer a pervasive social ill. It has balkanized into more disparate issue areas, ranging from the reformation of the criminal justice system to the ongoing pursuit of gender equity in the workplace, after the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Moreover, civil rights activism is no longer undergirded by sweeping institutional networks, as evidenced by the decline of civic groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality.

The events of this past summer have converged to underscore die inevitability of change in the ways in which people engage with their governments. Old conceptions of civil rights are continuing to change in our increasingly individualistic, yet internationalized and interconnected world. …

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