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« Becoming a Feminist | Main | Two Cartoons on the Church »

Diversity of Thought Within the Civil Rights Movement

By Angelo Lopez
February 25, 2013

When one looks at the great social movements that have changed America for the better, one of the things that becomes apparent is the diversity of viewpoints that are found among the various activists fighting for social change. Some activists are reformers who work within the political system to try to change laws and to elect political leaders who are sympathetic to their just cause. Some activists are more radical, who try to organize the marginalized and disenfranchised to empower them and bypass the existing political institutions to create more egalitarian systems of achieving justice. These radicals and reformers frequently disagree in their tactics and philosophies. Social change, though, is not possible without both radicals and reformers. A great example of this can be found in the civil rights movement.

Throughout the history of the civil rights movement for African Americans, the leaders held diverse viewpoints and they frequently clashed. Think of the names of the various leaders, individuals like Pauli Murray, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin, Malcolm X, Dorothy Height, Stokeley Carmichael, Thurgood Marshall, Angela Davis. All of these people were working for full freedom and equality for African Americans, yet all had very different philosophies and tactics. Some activists, like Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Jones were lawyers that worked to break down legal barriers to equal rights for African Americans. Activists from the Christian tradition, like Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Pauli Murray, and James Farmer, used nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns to bring out the injustices for the whole country to see and to act upon. Malcolm X, and later the Black Panther Party, thought that the African American community must fight for equal rights by any means necessary, that it cannot limit itself to nonviolent means if the oppressors are using violent means.

Within these diverse viewpoints were many clashes and debates. Martin Luther King Jr.'s nonviolent methods were questioned by Malcolm X and later Stokeley Carmichael. Bayard Rustin's conviction that the African American community must join in a broad coalition with unions and progressive churches clashed with the Black Panther ideology that the African American community must look inward and learn to help themselves. Leaders who wanted the movement to focus on legal and political gains clashed with activists who wanted the movement to focus on street protests and mass demonstrations. These differences tactics and philosophies appealed to different segments of the African American population, and it gave the civil rights movement a broader base of participants than if everyone had to follow one philosophy and one set of tactics.

A grassroots social movement does not depend on everyone in the movement being in agreement on philosophy. Reformers need radicals because the radicals are the ones who are out in the streets, organizing protests and making the arguments that slowly change public opinion to their cause. Radicals have historically been the canaries in the mine, who are the first to point out the problems of society before the mainstream society is aware that there is any problems. The radical's constant prodding for change and the outside pressure that radicals put on the political system helps give the reformer something that they can bargain with to give their reforms some teeth. Radicals make reformers accountable so that reformers do not compromise too much and constantly push reformers for ever stronger action.

Radicals need reformers because it is the reformers who work within the political system and make the necessary compromises to enact legislation that addresses the problems that the radicals are fighting. Reformers frame the arguments for change in a way that persuades moderates to join in their cause. Reformers allow middle-of-the-road people to participate who may be scared of the radical's ideology but are sympathetic to the radical's cause. Without the reformers bringing in the mainstream audience to the social movement, the radicals' messsage winds up marginalized and radicals end up preaching to the choir.

Radicals and reformers frequently argue with each other about tactics and philosophy. Whether they like it or not, though, significant social change cannot happen without both of them working for a common goal. Radicals and reformers act as a check and balance to the others worst weaknesses and one group can reach out to segments of the population that the other group cannot reach.

This diversity is why the civil rights movement had the participation of such a broad reach of people. Students, teachers, lawyers, housewives, wealthy patrons, celebrities, blue-collar workers, artists and young professionals all took part. This diversity of philosophies that we see in the civil rights movement can also be seen in the feminist movement, the LGBT movement, the labor movement and almost all other social movements. The most successful grassroots movements are those that have the broadest participation of different types of people. Such a broad coalition of people insures that justice is fought for in several fronts.

Here are some famous African American speeches and articles that represent different philosophies within the African American civil rights movement.

The Letter From A Birmingham Jail was written by Martin Luther King Jr. on April 16, 1963. In this letter, King gave a defense on nonviolent civil disobedience as a means for the oppressed to demand justice against their oppressors.

From Protest to Politics is an essay by Bayard Rustin for the February 1965 issue of Commentary magazine. In this essay, Bayard Rustin stated that the civil rights movement needed to transition from street protests to coalition building. Rustin argued that since African Americans are a minority of the American population, they need to join in a coalition with labor unions and other progressives to achieve their goals of economic and political equality.

The Ballot or the Bullet is a speech Malcolm X delivered on April 3, 1964. Malcolm warns that if African Americans are not granted civil rights after voting a Democrat to power, then that shows the inefficacy of the electoral system for African Americans to achieving their just rights and may have to resort to more violent means to achieve their ends.

The Liberation of Our People is a speech that Angela Davis gave at a Black Panthers rally on November 12, 1969. Davis argues that black activists must join with Hispanic activists and antiwar activists to fight several fronts against American imperialism.

Below are some youtube videos of debates of different civil rights leaders.

Excerpts of a debate between Bayard Rustin and Malcolm X

A debate between James Farmer, Wyatt T. Walker and Malcolm X

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