Friday, July 6, 2012

civil rights vs. social justice

I'm fascinated by the differences between the civil rights movements of the '60s and '70s and the social justice movements that followed. Superficially, only the names changed, because to most people, civil rights and social justice are both about treating everyone fairly. But if you think word choices matter—which the social justice community does vehemently—these changes must be significant.

1. Civil rights workers defined their causes by what they supported: equality, integration, peace. Social justice activisits define their causes by what they oppose: anti-racism, anti-war, anti-capitalism, etc.

2. Civil rights workers spoke of humanity as brothers and sisters. Social justice activists divide humanity into groups based on physical or ethnic identity and their "allies".

3. Civil rights workers had goals that could be legally accomplished. Social justice activists bristle when asked what specific measures they support.

4. Civil rights workers worked, and social justice activists are active. Examining that single difference could result in a book, but I'm not fascinated enough to write it.

Feminism bridged the change, which is why contemporary academic feminists kept the old name that says what they support and adopted the recent terminology of women and "male allies".


Two examples of the inclusive language of the civil rights movement:

"The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone." —Martin Luther King

"I believe in recognizing every human being as a human being, neither white, black, brown nor red. When you are dealing with humanity as one family, there's no question of integration or intermarriage. It's just one human being marrying another human being, or one human being living around and with another human being." —El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X)


  1. You have just stated what I have always felt about present day activists: they view everything negatively rather than positively; through a subjective lens, not an objective one. Mother Teresa commented once "I was once asked why I don't participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I'll be there." That's one thing I can agree with her on!

    Could you expand upon your 4th point? I know you said that it could fill a book, but just a brief paragraph would do! Do you mean that Civil Rights workers played a more active role, and Social Justice activists are mostly passive players?

    1. Excellent Mother T quote!

      It's not so much that SJ activists are passive, but they can take their very existence for activism. The prime example is slacktivism, yakking on the net with like-minded folks. Civil rights workers did all the work of writing things up, but then they took the flyers and magazines out in the streets to distribute to folks who wouldn't get them otherwise. They marched and protested and agitated and organized. What so many social justice types do wouldn't even register to civil rights folks--they would think it was the equivalent of hanging out at the bar.

      I shared this a while back. Adolph Reed said of Obama, "I’d refrained from saying that he, as well as his various running dogs, haunt me as illustrations of the modal type of Ivy League POC students I’ve been teaching for the last 30 years. That same mastery of performance of a cultivated, yet at the same time empty and pro forma, intellectuality, conviction that one’s career advancement literally embodies the victory of the civil rights movement, and that awe that Bromwich notes of the rich and powerful."

  2. Thought you might find this interesting:

  3. This is really compelling because my daughter goes to a Mpls K-8 that is a social justice charter. The Jr high goes on a civil rights history trip every 3 yrs. It's made me very aware of the potential filter to perceive things auto-negative. I suddenly love the idea of a YA time-travel book with this viewpoint as its concept.

    1. Hmm. I don't know if that'll spark a story, but it is an interesting notion!

  4. Work vs Active - the semantics define the priorities. Listen to the self congratulations of those who "stay active" physically or socially - nod, smile - then get back to work. It keeps a person from getting sucked into a position of feeding the Devourer. As Kipling (who occasionally fed the monster) said - "There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right".