Things to Learn from the American Civil Rights Movement

Rosa Parks sitting on the bus Credit to Winston Hearn

Protesting has resurfaced as a way to resist what the American Government is doing. In fact, according to Catherine Caruso at Boston University, there has been 4,294 protests between Jan. 20, 2017 and Oct. 11, 2017. The data was collected by a site known as Count Love.

With the rise of protesting comes an important question. Just how effective are these protests? Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan of the Washington Post found data saying it’s not doing as well as it used to.

“With this precipitous rise of nonviolent campaigns, we also have seen a steep learning curve. The success rates of nonviolent resistance peaked in the 1990s, but the current decade has seen a sharp decline in the success rates of nonviolent resistance.”

Data show that peaceful protests aren’t working as effectively as they had in the past. So, why are people still using these methods? The data collected by Chenoweth and Stephan show that nonviolent methods are effective half of the time while violent methods only work around a quarter of the time.

People are still opting for nonviolent methods because they are the most effective option for protesting. However, just protesting isn’t working as well as it did during the Civil Rights Movements during the 1960s and 1970s. Maybe people are missing something that activists did during that time that made their efforts successful.

Lecia Brooks, the Director of the Civil Rights Memorial in Alabama, mentioned an important factor during her presentation at the Diversity Symposium at Colorado State University. Brooks made sure to mention the amount of time people spent protesting injustices. According to Brooks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted 382 days. Restaurant Sit-ins lasted about a year, and the movement started by the Little Rock Nine lasted a school year before public schools were shut down in Arkansas for a year. The persistence of these protesters caused the people in power to make a change in order to end any kinds of conflict that were caused.

Rosa Parks, Bus Boycott, Replica
A replica of Rosa Parks on the bus. Photo Credit to Lieske Leunissen-Ritzen

The protests that have been running throughout America have been losing their steam as the topic becomes old news. An example is gun control. Protests about gun control have been more frequent since the rise in mass shootings. However, the protests last a couple of weeks, both in-person and on the internet, and then faze out until the next shooting.

The inconsistent rate of protests about the topic allows for it to be pushed down the list of importance. When people choose to protest during a time when the subject is relevant and forget about it when it doesn’t happen for a long time, the effort is perceived as conditional and loses impact. In order for an impact to be made by powerful officials, the communities need to be more persistent with their efforts.

Another aspect of the Civil Rights Movement that Brooks talked about was participants knew that being arrested was a possibility. The individuals who chose to be a part of the protests, whether boycotts, sit-ins, or other types of protesting, were willing to accept the harsh consequences in order to change what was going on. Brooks talked about how people would lose their jobs because of their involvement. Some even had to move to a new state in order to find employment again.

People today see a protest as missing a single day of work for a cause.

Protests today don’t push boundaries as they did back then. People today see a protest as missing a single day of work for a cause they believe in. They don’t look at it as an opportunity to make a change while sacrificing their livelihood. This isn’t to say that people should go out and break a lot of laws. It’s an example to show the dedication differences between the two time frames.

While it seems that modern protesting is missing the mark completely, it is getting a major aspect right. Much like the protests of the Civil Rights Movement, according to Brooks, protests today allow people of different races, cultures, genders, etc. to come together under a common cause. This diverse grouping shows how people who appear different can think the same way.

Parenting, Women's March,
Dad with his daughter at the 2018 Women’s March Credit to Rhododendrites of Wikimedia Commons

Nonviolent resistance is the right method for protesting against injustice. They just need some work to become more effective in the future.

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  1. Your article really made me consider and compare today with past history. After reading this, I think it is clear that protesters in the past were so dedicated to their causes and rarely stopped until they achieved justice or change. Today, people are always looking to what’s next and new ideas, so a cause or protest will come and go rapidly. Important things become “old news” so quickly that it hinders the ability to truly change the way society operates. You came up with great observations and analysis from the Diversity conference that were very interesting.

  2. I can agree that modern protesting is primarily about image, as opposed to genuine care and activism. However, I’m left wondering how all of the responsibility of activism is pushed onto the marginalized group. It’s important for these voices to have a significant platform, but those in privileged positions should also be using their power to help shift the system. The author did bring up a thoughtful point that most privileged people look at protesting as a day off, instead of actually taking the time to work towards structural change.

  3. I think it was thoughtful that people see protests as a day to take off from work instead of making structural change, I also liked the bold claim that protests were not like how they used to be. This was an interesting take on the speakers from the Diversity Conference.

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