When Did The Civil Rights Movement Stop Moving?

As we reflect on what would have been the 82nd birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. we arrive at a moment where “Black” seems to be on everyone’s mind…again.

Every January and February, the majority of Americans re-gain a consciousness of what we think we know about the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. After all, it only makes sense given America’s national celebration of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday (which often hits on a day other than his actual birthday) as well as February’s designation of “Black History Month.” January and February are when it is okay to celebrate Blackness in America, but for some, to say that is far-reaching and inconclusive for the still existent racism and ignorance surrounding the history of Blackness in this country and the world.

With each new year, we are able to celebrate the Reverend, Langston Hughes, Rosa Parks, Wilma Rudolph, Sojourner Truth, and even certain speeches from Malcolm X. America is able to celebrate these extraordinary historical figures because they have been distorted and broken into puzzle pieces that can be placed in different boxes. This disfiguration ensures the puzzle of justice will never be complete precisely because the puzzle pieces are not in the correct box. It is important to note, this American celebration of “Black history” is not conclusive. It is ordained by a European-American prescription whereby white America said it was okay to begin this celebration. Once white America decided which figures were able to pass into “American history”, memorials and celebrations were put into place. A de-sensitized, “safe” celebration that removed the radical inclinations of people, ideas, and movements.

Not often do we hear Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, outside of the sound bites of Black and white children playing together in harmony (colorblindness is racism). We do not hear about the injustices that have been written into the very lining of this country’s legal system. We do not hear about the bounced check that was written to Black folks during the Reconstruction era. Not often do we hear about figures like Paul Robeson, Steve Biko, Maria Stewart, Bayard Rustin, Angela Davis, Pauli Murray, Chairmen Fred Hampton Sr., Elaine Brown, Huey Newton, and the radical, sometimes irrate, speeches of Malcolm X. And never, do we hear of the ordinary folks who made this movement what it is. To highlight the power of ordinary individuals is a threat to the very oppressive foundation of America as an institution.

Now, some of these figures we don’t hear about because they are seen as irrelevant to American understandings of oppression. Others we don’t hear from because we live in a patriarchal, homophobic society; and some we don’t hear about because of their prophetic, empowering teachings.

The power of the Civil Rights Movement lies in its ability to unite and mobilize individuals from different sectors of America’s marginalized communities. While the face that was given to the Civil Rights Movement is a Black, heterosexual Christian man, in no way should that movement be reduced to those variables. The Civil Rights Movement was and is a struggle for the liberation of all peoples. To say the movement was solely Black, Christian, heterosexual, or male-driven is to reduce the movement to inconclusive understandings of its complexities. Just like when one writes a paper, making an argument for something limits the possibilities of what the author talks about–it does not mean the author was unaware that there were many other struggles and issues to raise.

As a society, we must work towards reconstructing our collective consciousness of what we think we know about the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. In fact, it was a powerful time in history. But we mustn’t think of history in terms of a timeline. By that I mean, we should not designate movements to one particular moment in time but instead think of things in relation to other people, ideas, and movements that were happening at the same time as well as before/after. When it comes to something like the Civil Rights Movement, we must prefer historicity over history. Historicity will allow us to recognize the progress that was instilled by this extraordinary movement as well as its shortcomings.

So, as we enter these two short months where it is socially acceptable to celebrate Black people, Black ideas, Black histories, please continue to press. Continue to dig deeper into what we think we understand about the Civil Rights Movement, about Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the other figures that will surface. Please keep in mind that the Civil Rights Movement is the struggle for all peoples–Black, Asian, Latino/a, white, differently abled persons, LGBTQ communities, people of different socio-economic standings, different faith identities and much, much more. If we limit buy into the limitations of history, we buy into limitations for our own understanding. As my girl Emily put it, we need to subscribe to GBF–Give Back February. One month, one time of year will never be enough time to highlight all of the contributions Black folks and Black movements poured into the world. Give back the month and demand the year!

Finally, as an aside to my LGBTQ activists who claim there is a “new” Civil Rights Movement, the Civil Rights Movement is collective. It never ended for there to be a new one. While the train may have been forced back underground, we must recognize the movement was railroaded. Until we get back on track and unite various communities, the journey to our destination will take that much longer.

For more information on the Civil Rights Movement, please visit: www.rustin.org