Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Successful Southern Insurgency?

The Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s was a "reform movements in the United States aimed at outlawing racial discrimination against African Americans and restoring Suffrage in Southern states". We look back at it as an inevitable change in American history. When skillfully coordinated use of non-violent protests and various types of civil disobedience altered the political and cultural landscape of America.

That's one way to look at it. There is another way. Was Martin Luther King Jr. the most visible leader of a homegrown insurgency in the United States?

Historian Mark Grimsley has taken that rather unique perspective on the American Civil Rights Movement. He asks that you think of the movement as an insurgency. Why the Civil Rights Movement Was an Insurgency makes the case. His makes a great deal of sense even if the idea doesn't feel right at first. There are good reasons to think about it that way.

He also gave a talk on this idea as part of the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center's Perspectives in Military History Lecture Series. Scroll down about half the page to view or download the talk.

Mark is a boisterous speaker. He gets all wound up about his subject. He makes many great points throughout the talk. That the movement's success wasn't inevitable. That the movement wasn't a single coordinated effort. And that the movement had it's share of outright failures along the way. The questions at the end bring up good points as well so don't stop watching too early.

In the spirit of the web he even gives over an entire blog entry on his site to a letter that challenges this view of the civil rights movement and worries that: "As I see it, to suggest that legal, first amendment redress of one's government is a form of insurgency is playing with fire,...". My own take on the letter is that protests that are 'legal first amendment redresses' do not make up an insurgency. Protests, violent or not, that break laws and force authorities to respond can be an insurgency. I think the writer swings the pendulum too far.

More importantly I think it's necessary to at least consider the idea that the Civil Rights Movement was an insurgency. Does an insurgency have to be violent? Or can it just incite violence from law enforcement? This is only the beginning of the questions that come to mind. I'm not sure it's comfortable to know that movements in our own countries that aim to change the political landscape can be insurgencies. After all insurgencies don't happen here. They happen over there. Right?

Historically not all insurgencies succeed. Even the most noble, worthy, and just causes don't have to achieve their goals. The Civil Rights Movement did achieve some of its goals when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It covered desegregation but did not fully cover giving Southern blacks the right to vote. Martin Luther King Jr. wanted Johnson to do more. Johnson pushed back saying that there was enough change for now and voting rights would have to wait. The movement continued its campaign.

After Selma and 'Bloody Sunday' President Johnson sent a draft Voting Rights Bill to Congress. It became the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Implementing and enforcing the laws and registering voters, would take time. Changing economic and social inequality would take much longer. The debate on if, or when, the true equality was achieved is still ongoing. However in terms of changing the political landscape, which is the political goal of an insurgency, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the "culminating point of victory".

The laws changed. Racial discrimination was no longer legal. Suffrage was in place.

The United States was formed in a revolution. It survived a civil war. It also may have had an internal insurgency that managed to successfully alter the fabric of American life. Altered for the better but altered nonetheless.

I must admit even the thought makes me think of history, in America and here in Canada, in a new light.

There is question that Mark Grimsley raises only in passing in the talk but addresses in more detail in the article. What would have happened if the political changes didn't get signed into law before the Black Power movement started?

The public explosion of the Black Power movement (the Watts riots) started days after the Voting Rights Act was signed. If this had occurred any earlier, if the nation's televisions had images of rioting violent blacks and not non-violent protesters being beaten and arrested by overzealous southern police departments, would the Voting Rights Act have become law? Would the rest of America have much stomach for granting voting rights? Could the very existence of groups like the Black Panthers have prevented or delayed the changes to the law? What would America have been like if suffrage hadn't been extended in 1965?

He points out that:
The Black Power movement generated a new pride among blacks, in their history, their culture, and themselves. It was in that respect indispensable. But it effectively ended all prospect of a renewal of the insurgency that might have added economic justice to legal and political rights.
History isn't inevitable. In this case the insurgency (if it was an insurgency) worked. There had never been any guarantees though. Isn't that why it was called a struggle?

I'm not sure if Mark Grimsley is the type of historian who plays the game of what-if. Some historians don't like to stray to far from what happened. Regardless of his own views he ends the article by allowing someone else to play what-if and describe what the alternative might have been:
It is fortunate for many reasons that the insurgency succeeded, and fortunate that its emphasis on nonviolent resistance won the battle for the Southern population. It not only mobilized black Southerners but also succeeded in the key task of detaching from die-hard segregationists the Southern white moderates unwilling to pay the price of a continued system of apartheid. Had that not occurred, said a former King aide, "the South today would look like Beirut looks today."

No comments: