Keeping Civil Rights in its Rightful Context

President Obama spoke earlier this month on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, honoring the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. His speech, while powerful in scope, and providing a sufficient respect for history, brings to attention an important fallacy resonating throughout the country concerning modern social movements.

The year 2018 will represent the fiftieth anniversary since Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis. Today, around the country, his memory is crystallized into American life. We see images of Dr. King in NBA commercials and tributes at the Oscars by John Legend and Common. Protestors in Ferguson, Cleveland, and Madison—plagued by police violence and racial discrimination—evoke the imagery and rhetoric of King in their marches and protests.

But despite the romanticism of Civil Rights being advanced in today’s popular culture, the concept of building a social movement is becoming lost upon today’s generation. Lest we forget, it took over 100 years from President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation for the 1964 Civil Rights Act to be signed into law. Today’s organizations have taken a different approach from the 1960s Civil Rights movement, choosing to focus on transient strategies—email newsletters, scant fundraising appeals, social media campaigns, one-off demonstrations, and provocative videos. This has produced a class of organizations more concerned with driving Internet traffic and social media presence than the enduring practice of institutional reform.

Occupy Wall Street and the Climate March of 2014 shed light on this narrative. Both organizations embarked upon campaigns that were admirable and impressive in scale, and focused on issues of utmost importance: growing income inequality and climate change. Even more impressive was the global coordination of the People’s Climate March, bringing out record number demonstrations. Yet both are struggling to maintain prominence in the national discourse. This is a result of these movements’ limitations in translating successful turnouts into political reform.

Aside from a select group of politicians discussing climate change, stagnant wages, and gross overreach by our largest financial institutions, what agenda has been created in the wake of these movements? The U.S. has yet to elect one national politician running on the platform of tackling climate change; other than Senator Elizabeth Warren, the issues demonstrated for so valiantly by members of Occupy Wall Street have been nestled further down the agenda. And the hopes of addressing these issues during the 2016 presidential contest appear grim, considering our inclination toward electing politicians from legacy families.

This disconnect has created a wedge between translating effective public awareness into institutional change. Lofty phrases like “social justice” and “high-volume impact” have taken precedence over the tangible goals of educating and mobilizing the public, pressuring political leadership through civic engagement, raising considerable resources for community outreach, and electing representatives committed to specific agendas. Instead, modern social movements have created a level of illusory social change that is enough to fulfill an inherent need, but not enough to shape the existing norms.

Put simply, we must exercise caution in the way we choose to label something a “social movement,” and we need to move beyond talking about civil rights in a romanticized way. We must be willing to choose the difficult path and ask the hard questions. Questions of the current social, economic, and political landscape; questions of the concentrations of power; questions of how things got to where they have, why they have, and why they persist.

One root cause lies in the lack of leadership. In the 1950s and 60s, Dr. King played a unique role in bridging the gap between various social groups, and having the oratorical brilliance to speak truths in language everyone could relate to. Conversely, modern civil rights and social justice organizations lack nationally recognized figures to galvanize public action and align their interests with the common interest. Not only that, but there is a lack of consensus within these communities on who should be taking the lead. As a result, niche groups advocating self-interested positions engage in an endless game of competing for the same resources and attention.

At the end of the day, politics still matters. Yes, civil society relinquishes power by not partaking in elections, but even more so, agendas become usurped by powerful interests if gone unchecked by an active community at large. The importance of electing leaders to serve as counterweights to powerful lobbies is essential to institutional reform. And without broad coalitions being built across the issue spectrum, and enough people seeking public office to fill those voids, progress will always remain inherently limited.

Following the historic March on Washington in 1963, Attorney General Robert Kennedy said that his opinion on social progress had changed. He believed that change could no longer come without disrupting the political establishment. He was correct—and that same credo must be followed today. Having an adequate respect for the enormous sacrifices made by the Civil Rights leaders of the 1950s and 1960s will ensure the sanctity of its plight, and give us an adequate bar to measure our own success by. Unless today’s organizations can translate successful mobilization into institutional and political reforms, we will only continue the cycle of feel-good change, while wondering where all our progress has gone.