Modern-day student activism finds its roots in the Civil Rights Movement
By Dr. Jelani M. Favors
Assistant Professor of History
As we celebrate the numerous contributions African Americans have made to the United States, we are reminded by Frederick Douglass that “power concedes nothing without a demand.” Indeed it is the creation of social movements that galvanized the efforts of those marginalized by policy, ignorance and fear. These movements gave birth to resistance of various forms. This reality highlights one immutable truth – the historical trajectory of our nation has moved steadily towards inclusion. This journey has been tedious and has often troubled the very soul of America. In doing so, it has often raised questions about our nation’s commitment towards the principles that reside at the core of our nations political rhetoric – “All men are created equal.”
To secure those rights, African Americans developed institutions of various kinds that created roadmaps to freedom. As newly freed Blacks emerged from slavery, they constructed schools and colleges in part because they acknowledged that subsequent generations would need to become educated and emboldened in order to fiercely defend their freedom rights such as citizenship, suffrage and even their humanity. In the midst of this struggle, Black colleges emerged and became incubators for teachers, ministers and future activists, trained in a variety of professional backgrounds. Students were exposed to idealism and challenged to think of themselves as social and political change agents. These same youth would go on to become the foot-soldiers of a massive social movement that rocked the foundations of our nation and ultimately reshaped American democracy during the Modern Civil Rights Movement.
One of the most enduring legacies of Black student activism was the creation of a linked sense of fate that Black youth shared with the masses. Countless campus speakers, faculty members, and administrators convinced Black students that their fates and the future of the Black uneducated masses were intrinsically linked together. While it is true that episodes of classism and elitism certainly existed within past generations, the most common ideological thrust of Black student activism maintained the idea that they were all in this together.
It was in this spirit that activists such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) descended into the rural communities of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi during the turbulent 1960s and marched hand in hand with sharecroppers, housekeepers, and common laborers in a full court press for liberty and justice. Georgia became an important backdrop for SNCC initiatives. In Albany, student activists forged vital relationships with local townspeople and launched one of its most challenging struggles against Jim Crow. SNCC eventually settled their headquarters in Atlanta and continued to inspire youth committed to justice throughout the world. Their example should be a call for us to continue to embrace this linked sense of fate and to remember that the plight of the masses is our plight too.
Recurrences of intolerance, hate, and fear, are still too common within our nation and they invade our public rhetoric and social media platforms. What will this current generation of students have to say about such developments? There are a multitude of issues that still undermine Dr. Martin Luther King’s ultimate vision of a “beloved community.” If history has anything to teach us, we hopefully can count on a new generation of youth to help craft the vision of a more inclusive and tolerant society, and most importantly, help lead the way towards its creation.
The views and opinions expressed in faculty expert commentary are based on the opinions and/or research of the faculty member quoted, and do not represent the official positions of Clayton State University.