The Civil Rights Movement (CRM) was the iconic example of a social movement in the mid-20th century, becoming one of the largest and most effective in history. It ended discrimination and began the process of establishing social and civil equality. In recent years, the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) Movement emerged, focusing primarily on protesting continuous instances of racial profiling and unproportionate use of force against African Americans. It can be argued that it is a modern iteration of the Civil Rights Movement, this time addressing a much more elusive and abstract concept of prejudice and covert institutional racism. While the social movements share some similarities, there are significant differences in the culture, organization, and overall actions in each of these campaigns for change.
Formation of the Movements
It is important to consider that what is historically labeled as the Civil Rights Movement was realistically a collection of movements on various fronts which attempted to end racial segregation and discrimination. Both official organizations such as the NCAAP, SNCC, and SCLC as well as grassroots protests including Freedom Riders and Black Power were involved in Civil Rights. Pre-existing ties played a significant role in the collective action and emergence of the CRM, as leadership led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was formed, and many of the involved leaders and organizations continuously communicated among each other and organized acts of protest.
Organizations recruited members and mobilized support through two ways, working with local black communities and churches to emphasize the importance of collective action and the Civil Rights ideology, essentially building extensive networks of members and subchapters in communities as well as universities or religious institutions. CRM was able to competently frame their issues, to establish a coherent and resonant master frame which was then used by organizations and individuals at local level. It was a blend of Christian themes with conventional democratic theory, with an emphasis on nonviolence and redemptive healing for the nation. Dr. King was mostly responsible for the public success of the movement, as until his “I Have a Dream” speech, most of the country saw civil rights as a Southern or Black problem. It was King’s reliance on democratic theory and being able to draw connections for individuals who never experienced oppression, that so elegantly framed the issues within the CRM (Clayton, 2018).
Meanwhile, #BlackLivesMatter is an inherently grassroots movement, a social reaction to a series of unfortunate events which resulted in the death of a black teenager Trayvon Martin due to negligence by a white man in 2012. The movement did not gain significant traction until 2014 when two African Americans were killed in separate incidents in Ferguson, MO and New York due to the disproportionate use of police force. The defense and eventual acquittal of involved officers stemmed social unrest in these communities and protests, both physical and online which utilized the trending hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Therefore, there were no pre-existing ties or organizational interaction, other than community ties already existing (many joined protests due to knowing the families) or racial solidarity, as many African Americans have at some point in their lives faced racial profiling. BLM did not initially attempt to recruit members, simply asking to share the hashtag. However, over the years, as the movement attained some organizational capacity through various chapters, it utilizes its roots in social media and online campaigning to actively recruit members and gain support.
BLM furthermore uses media as both a tool to frame its issues and also letting others tell their narrative for them. BLM has the challenge of appealing to mainstream America to voice the concerns that should be part of national identity. However, the common misconception that BLM is against police, and the difficult context of simplifying bad policing practices for non-black people to understand creates challenges in utilizing the same framing approach as the Civil Rights Movement. Therefore, BLM attempts to frame the issue under a broad goal of “black humanity” while attempting to emphasize the racial bias present in the criminal justice system (Clayton, 2018).
Decision-Making and Structure
CRM was inherently innovative for its time from the perspective of social movement theory. Prior to it, scholars generally formulated collective behavior and relevant social phenomena as a spontaneous and unstructured movement. Furthermore, the social oppression and discriminatory legislation such as the Jim Crow Laws effectively stripped black people of any impactful economic or political power. Social inequality was at its peak in 1950 when CRM began. As an oppressed group, generating change through social protest was not an option in many parts of the country. However, various events such as the infamous lynching of Emmett Till combined with the growing popularity of televisions and communication technologies put the issues at hand for debate on a national stage (Orfield & Stancil, 2018). Therefore, the movement began to use collective action in a more structured manner such as sit-ins and peaceful protests that has not been done beforehand.
The success of collective action was largely due to the competent and long-term decision-making of key leaders in the movement. The major events and impactful contributions of the movements were led or decided upon by key figures in CRM such as Martin Luther King Jr. and his aides and advisors as part of the SCLC. However, it is also important to consider the grassroots presence of the movement as well as decentralized grassroots leadership such as local activists, small politicians, influential figures, and student leaders played a role in developing various strategies and protests. While King and his circle was heavily involved in major decision-making and driving policy, scholars are weary to attribute all success to him as done in popular culture. The movement’s organizational structure was largely horizontal, as various branches and organizations protested segregation in local communities, while at the national level, all actions were guided by key leaders and organizations such as the NCAAP (Morris, 1999).
Meanwhile, BLM had a significant repertoire of collective action to shape the movement’s strategy both online and in the real world. It uses the collective and individual experience of African Americans in the US and encourages active resistance, similar to the approach that CRM once did (Clayton, 2018). Furthermore, BLM reflects the trends of recent public protests such as Occupy Wall Street which is based in physical protest and occupation of public space with amplification of the issues on social media. Finally, BLM potentially encourages its members to pursue disruptive repertoires of contention such as disrupting political rallies, addressing government entities, and direct expression of confidence, voting and encouraging others to vote for candidates that support the movement’s ideals (Orfield & Stancil, 2018).
As stated earlier, initially, BLM had no organized structure, driven by the social backlash and local community organizing of peaceful protests. However, since then the movement has grown from a social hashtag to an organizational network which encompasses over 30 local chapters in the United States. BLM remains susceptible to the problem of leadership as there is still no clear leader or governance structure emerging as the movement continues to rely on social “trending” patterns and online campaigns. In turn, during protests, it becomes difficult to distinguish legitimate activists from looters as well as maintain a controlled and peaceful demonstration (Updegrove, Cooper, Orrick, & Piquero, 2018). Decision-making is essentially left to the people themselves and potentially local community leaders, distinguishing it from the strong leadership of Dr. King or even prominent student and community leaders that greatly contributed to the organization of the movement.
Media and Political Opportunity
Both CRM and BLM tremendously benefited from the political opportunity structure and respective media emergence to foster its mobilization. CRM came at a time when television was becoming common in people’s homes, and the coverage of the various events or struggles facing CRM horrified people around the country, even whites. It positioned the movement to gain sympathy and support, including from leaders and politicians. This is where CRM took advantage of the political opportunity structure. The Kennedy family was highly sympathetic to the movement and directly engaged with the NAACP and Dr. King to aid in various political and legal approaches.
John F. Kennedy eventually became President, while his brother Robert Kennedy was the Attorney General, with both greatly pushing for legislative change regarding civil rights. Therefore, CRM had support from the national government, but state governments in the South greatly opposed it, using police to violently break up protests and legal loopholes to continue enforcing the Jim Crow laws. Movement opponents which were primarily in the South did not want to see a change in the status quo, and practiced open discrimination, or sometimes violence against the African American population and anyone who was known to be a member of the movement or the NAACP (Morris, 1999).
BLM had the benefit of accessible social media and technologies, which essentially started the movement and spread its popularity. It is through social media and traditional media coverage that Americans found out about the movement and began to either join it or support it. Political structure slightly benefited BLM as both President Obama, and Missouri and New York governments were sympathetic to the issue and sought to begin discussions. However, the unrest and looting occurring with the BLM protests were universally condemned by everyone, and this association inhibited support for the movement at one point (Carney, 2016). The opponents to BLM were ironically mostly the same populations that opposed CRM, including many Republicans, Southerners, and right-leaning politicians and organizations. Opposition to BLM could be directly correlated to political affiliation, states, and voting patterns, as well as sparking controversy among legislatures and law enforcement agencies (Updegrove et al., 2018). However, for many states, the official position on BLM was that of understanding and agreeing to examine police practices and bias, but condemning any instances of violence and lawlessness associated with the movement protests.
Decline and Impact of Movements
The decline of CRM came about in the late 1960s as the public and many members of the movement believed that the objectives were achieved. The movement brought about the outcomes of legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which legally addressed the concepts of segregation and discrimination, with the executive branch willing to enforce the laws at the state level. Furthermore, the movement lost its iconic leaders such as Dr. King and Malcolm X. There was a political shift in Presidential administrations that was not as concerned with this issue. While advocacy and some protesting continued, CRM never gained the same traction it did in the previous decade. Nevertheless, its impact was substantial, extending beyond the legislative victories. It positioned the discussion of racism, segregation, and the struggles of African Americans on the national stage. The country began to shift its ideology in becoming more inclusive and accepting (Orfield & Stancil, 2018). Although the country continues to debate many racial issues in modern-day, CRM made a mark in history and society.
After its explosive growth in 2014-2016, BLM largely declined in popularity in recent years. This can be attributed to two factors, first, it was a grassroots movement that was largely reactionary to shootings of black men by police. With no recent highly public incidents, the movement does not have the traction. Furthermore, the movement’s lack of organizational capacity most likely had an impact as there is no concrete agenda such as with CRM. However, the movement did create an impact and put public pressure on society and politicians. Racism is said to have declined slightly and many institutions ranging from police to education are careful to consider their actions regarding racial-related issues (Roberts, 2018). The most significant outcome that BLM brought about was the discussion about police violence and racial profiling practices. It resulted in President Obama supporting legislation to establish accountability in the police force, with many departments around the country now require officers to wear body cameras. Furthermore, efforts have been made to demilitarize regular police forces and introduce specific bias training to avoid deadly situations or misunderstandings.
BLM is a highly social movement with grassroots collective origins, experiencing rapid growth in its attempts to actively resist the dehumanization of black people and systemic racism that continues to be prevalent in society. Addressing similar issues to the CRM in terms of opposition to racism and systemic oppression, BLM seeks equal treatment by police and eliminating other instances of social oppression. However, there are fundamental differences, beginning with the nature of the movements, as CRM was very inclusive, often welcoming supporters from other races and religions, and continuously emphasized non-violence. Meanwhile, BLM is exclusive, and even if the majority of its participants believe in non-violent approaches, the movement protests have been associated with rioting, looting, and disruption to the civilian way of life in its extreme forms of civil disobedience which have little political purpose.
Several comparisons have been made in this paper and can be further expanded, but the truth of the issue is that CRM had a specific purpose, organization, highly competent leadership, and proper framing of issues. Meanwhile, BLM remains a disorganized, emotionally based, bottom-up social media insurgency which has an issue that it seeks to address, but few channels, policy suggestions, or methods of doing so. This can be understood in the context of the movement’s origin and media framing, but both the CRM and BLM framed their perceptions. Therefore, BLM has significant organizational growth ahead and could benefit from learning the lessons that Civil Rights activists experienced as they seek to expand boundaries and transition from becoming politically unacceptable to being widely recognized (Clayton, 2018). The impact of BLM has been significant, but it is the long-term goals and policies which the movement needs to consider to achieve the same level of success as the Civil Rights Movement in promoting African American rights.
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