Reflections on Activism

As we reflect on last week's tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., we should recall the words of Gunnar Jahn, who presented him with the Nobel Prize in 1964: "It was not because he led a racial minority in [its] struggle for equality that Martin Luther King achieved fame. Many others have done the same, and their names have been forgotten." Chief among these other catalysts for change was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a group that offers us great insight into our own capacity as agents of change. Were it not for the SNCC's sustained efforts, "I Have a Dream" would have been little more than poetry on paper.

Students of today's generation often remark that they can do little to stop the injustices they hear about on a daily basis. We should recall, however, that activists from the 1960s had neither the tools that we possess (such as the Internet) to unite people around our causes nor as great the resources to advance them. It was through sheer determination that they turned quiet conversations about injustice in a few homes into an irreversible movement for freedom that affected a nation's conscience. Whether we endeavor to confront humanitarian crisis in Sudan or residual racism in our own country, we should take heart from their successes.

A brief survey of the SNCC's tactics is instructive. In 1961, their members, as well as those of the Congress of Racial Equality, traveled a route that extended from Mississippi to Washington, D.C., challenging the legality of segregated restrooms and restaurants, among other institutions. Not surprisingly, these "Freedom Riders" suffered vicious repression: Some were beaten by white supremacist mobs, while others were arrested and detained for longer than a month. In June 1963, for example, police arrested civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer and some of her fellow colleagues as they stopped to eat in a Mississippi restaurant. During the three days that they spent in prison, they suffered brutal attacks at the hands of prison officials — Hamer nearly died.

As the 1960s progressed, civil rights groups' efforts met with greater hostility. In what later became known as "Bloody Sunday," law enforcement officials used billy-clubs, tear gas, and bullwhips against 500 or so members of the SNCC and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who were protesting voter discrimination in Alabama. Many were severely wounded. Yet these same individuals had the courage to march from Selma to Montgomery two more times, fully aware that they could have been assaulted even more brutally than they had been just days earlier. It was the third and last of these marches that convinced President Lyndon B. Johnson to sign into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Although this piece of legislation did not have much of a direct impact, it nonetheless challenged society's fundamental underpinnings and succeeded in affirming the cause of African-American citizens throughout the country by according it due recognition. Today's activists in America need not endure such assaults in order to effect monumental change.

After Dr. King delivered his memorable 1963 address, the SNCC coordinated with other civil rights groups to focus national attention on Mississippi's institutionalized racism and galvanize African-American voters. While many individuals who participated in their efforts were African-Americans from disadvantaged neighborhoods, many of them were whites from affluent backgrounds. Even though they could have chosen to ignore the injustices to which they bore witness, they consciously immersed themselves into the struggles that would shape not only the 1960s, but also an entire generation of students and activists. Today's causes are no less pressing, and as organizations such as MoveOn.org demonstrate, individuals can instantly find thousands of allies at the click of a button.

As a result, even though American history textbooks may suggest otherwise, you need not be a Dr. King in order to fight injustice — you need only be an individual of conscience. Activists of the past have faced far greater obstacles than many of those that we face today, and accomplished what many would have found inconceivable in their time. With greater resources at our disposal, what might we achieve?