Written by Joe Street and Henry Knight Lozano, coeditors of The Shadow of Selma
The Trump presidency seems to have reignited popular protest in numerous ways—sometimes troubling, sometimes inspiring. We need only look to the women’s marches, the furor over the travel ban, the militant response to fascists openly marching in Charlottesville, and the astonishing, heart-rending reaction of schoolchildren to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting to see the American public engaging in direct action at an almost unprecedented level.
While each protest upsurge has come in response to single events and often focuses on specific remedies, as historians we are almost inexorably drawn to comparisons with the African American civil rights movement of the 1960s—perhaps the greatest direct action movement in American history, and one whose echoes linger in the hearts and minds of the nation. As the editors of The Shadow of Selma, we think in particular of the 1965 Selma campaign, which prompted perhaps the peak of the 1960s movement. After years of patient organizing, activists invited the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to the town in order to push for desegregation. The SCLC agreed, hoping to place further pressure on President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Democratic administration to pass sweeping voting rights legislation that would fulfill promises made to African American citizens back in the 1860s.
Selma, previously an unheralded bastion of white supremacy, became the focal point of the entire civil rights movement in early 1965. The civil rights activists there marched repeatedly, enduring beatings, mass arrests, even death, before they prevailed with a march to Montgomery. The symbolism of ending the march in the former cradle of the Confederacy was lost on nobody. Dr. King’s concluding speech even cited that transcendent anthem of the American Civil War, the Battle Hymn of the Republic, to reinforce the notion that the Selma campaign could reunite the nation after years of discord. This moment, filled with hope despite the violence endured on the march, suggested that the civil rights movement had indeed overcome.
The passage of the Voting Rights Act, perhaps the greatest legislative act of the twentieth century, illustrated that the civil rights movement had triumphed over one of the most difficult problems facing participants in social movements: how to translate popular protest into binding legislation. The contributors to our volume point out that during the 1960s this process was smoothed by Dr. King, who was able to both converse with the nation’s political leaders and engage with grassroots activists. Indeed, Dr. King played a central role in bringing the unanswerably moral case of the popular movement into the halls of Congress. Additionally, President Johnson expended a great deal of political capital by placing the Voting Rights Act at the core of his legislative program and marshalling both his Democratic colleagues’ and his own considerable energy and skills to ensure its passage. The legacy of this effort was as he predicted: the Democrats lost the South for generations.
But social movements do not merely begin and end with—or succeed or fail because of—their so-called “leaders.” Social movements themselves are self-sustaining. They depend on long-term organizing structures, individual commitment, media coverage, and many other factors. Moreover, without followers, who are the “leaders” leading?
As events in Selma suggested, sometimes the “leader” needs to follow the people, as Dr. King was forced to do in the wake of the militancy of Selma’s activists. These activists were able to lead the media towards stories about the civil rights movement. While print and television media helped to shape popular understanding of the movement, and attempted to shape this coverage to fit its own ideas about the nature of American democracy, the movement’s activists themselves were adept—as all social movement participants have to be—at creating the kind of circumstances that draw the media’s, and hence the nation’s, attention.
In April 2018, we naturally look back to Dr. King’s tragic assassination. His death sent the nation into a paroxysm of grief and rage, and for some commentators signified the end of the civil rights movement. Astute observers, however, noticed that the movement did not die with Dr. King. It merely shifted into another phase. While we must look back and celebrate Dr. King’s monumental contribution to African American history, we must also remember that he did not act alone and at times needed to be prompted to action by the nameless thousands whom he represented.
As important, and as other contributors to our volume note, the gains made by progressive social movements must be defended. We cannot sit on our laurels once the first battles are won. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Shelby County v. Holder that part of the Voting Rights Act was no longer needed. Almost immediately, some states took action to restrict the franchise, ending practices such as online voter registration and early voting provisions, implementing harsher voter identification laws, reapportioning districts to limit the power of the African American vote, and more—drawing new battle lines for those who struggle and campaign for social justice and equality.
We hope that the current generation of activists are able to look to the civil rights movement not for a roadmap for their own protests—for they must follow their own path—but as inspiration to help sustain their movements. The shadow of Selma, then, reminds us that even amid our greatest successes, the forces of reaction never stop fighting. Neither should we.
Joe Street, senior lecturer in history at Northumbria University, is the author of Dirty Harry’s America: Clint Eastwood, Harry Callahan, and the Conservative Backlash, The Culture War in the Civil Rights Movement, and numerous articles on African American radicalism in the 1960s.
Henry Knight Lozano, senior lecturer in history and American studies at Northumbria University, is the author of Tropic of Hopes: California, Florida, and the Selling of American Paradise, 1869–1929. His research focuses on cultivated and contested identities in American history.
Joe Street and Henry Knight Lozano are coeditors of The Shadow of Selma.
Contributors to The Shadow of Selma: Alma Jean Billingslea Brown | Ben Houston | Peter Ling | Mark McLay | Tony Badger | Clive Webb | Aniko Bodroghkozy | Mark Walmsley | George Lewis | Megan Hunt | Devin Fergus | Barbara Harris Combs | Lynn Mie Itagaki