Lessons from the 1960s for 21st-Century Change

Isaiah J. Poole

In the heat of the 1960s civil rights movement, Rev. Jesse Jackson was a young lieutenant to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Roger Wilkins was a White House insider. But reflecting on their different vantage points at the Take Back America conference, they have come to the same conclusion about how the civil rights movement succeeded then and how the progressive movement can succeed today: The power of an independent movement of conscience.

It’s what Jackson, at a plenary session at the Take Back America conference, compared to the electricity line that drives a subway train. “The third rail is where the energy is, where the power is, where the fire is,” Jackson said.

For allies who come to power on the inside, Jackson said, the worst that can happen is the loss of that independent energy and power.

Both Jackson and Wilkins, along with historian Taylor Branch, said that progressives need to lay claim to the successes of the civil rights movement.

For example, Jackson cited an example of a Latino woman who said that she was going to vote for Sen. Hillary Clinton over Sen. Barack Obama in the presidential race because when African Americans ascended into political power they did not go anything for Latinos. That woman did not realize that the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965 led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1968, which in turn led to laws that allowed bilingual voting and, ultimately, to the political climate that allowed a woman and an African American to be leading candidates for the presidency.

The truth is that much of the public has failed to appreciate the extent to which, as Branch put it, “a movement driven by African Americans fundamentally redeemed America across the board.”

The discussion definitively answers a comment made by Clinton on the campaign trail that many interpreted as downplaying the role of King and civil rights activists in getting civil rights legislation passed. While Clinton said that it ultimately took a president to make those laws happen, Wilkins, who was an eyewitness to the deliberations among executive branch officials about the civil rights activists agitating from the outside, said, “there is no way that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would have been drafted and the draft completed” without such events as the 1963 March on Washington.

The Kennedy administration as well as conservative opponents to civil rights legislation were fearful of the march, and some civil rights allies feared that the sight of African Americans flooding into the nation’s capital would actually set back the cause of civil rights. Insiders wanted to move with caution and compromise, but “the vision of 275,000 people coming onto that Mall dignified, in a good mood, like a church picnic, and responding beautifully and wonderfully, changed President Kennedy’s mind,” Wilkins said.

The challenge for the progressive movement today, Branch said, is to move the current political environment “from a spin culture into a movement culture,” one that moves the political discourse from a focus on the horse race of political candidates to the needs and hopes of everyday people and the quest to get American to live up to its ideals of shared prosperity.

That was the ultimate triumph of the civil rights movement – that it was not simply about advancing a particular group of people but it was about making America better for everyone. Today’s struggles for economic justice for all Americans and a government that meets the needs of the many instead of the few owes much, and can learn much, from the people who gave their energy and their lives to the fight for racial justice – especially when in 2009 a new, more progressive president encounters the politics of restraint and compromise.

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