On opportunity lost and opportunity found

by Janette Gayle
Assistant Professor of History

It’s been interesting to watch the unfolding of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the last months. You look at what’s going on in the streets across America and the world — it’s interracial, interclass, intergenerational. And it’s not like the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, where you could point to individual leaders. Now leadership is diffuse; we have to wait to see if that’s helpful in the long run or not, but as a movement, it’s bringing people together across all of those divisions created to control people. I’m hopeful that this is a moment where people across all those boundaries come together to see the bigger problem, the bigger picture, the bigger promise. I think it’s the only way we’re going to move forward.

But I’m concerned about the staying power of the BLM movement because of the power of the idea of race — and it is an idea — that motivates people to vote against their class interests, as they have for the past 200 years. And with the 24-hour news cycle, does the movement filter into nothingness? When you’re a historian, you tend to look at events in the present through the lens of the past; I’ve seen interracial coalitions for civil rights and workers’ rights fall apart and I’m concerned.

Black people in America have been struggling for rights — essentially, the struggle for freedom — from the time they landed in Jamestown in 1619. However, the modern civil rights movement begins in the 1930s when you have a coalition of people struggling for workers’ rights and people struggling for civil rights for African Americans. That coalition lasts until the 1965 Voting Rights Act becomes law. However, by the end of the decade, the multi-racial coalition falls apart. It’s one thing to put laws in place, it’s another to change attitudes. Black folks rightfully believed that not only had the promises for equality, inherent in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, not come to fruition, but that the laws were being actively undermined by those who wanted to turn back the clock to pre-civil rights days when Black folks “knew their place.” That betrayal and the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. gave rise to a militant Black power movement determined to make real the promise of citizenship for African Americans by any means necessary. At that point, white support for the civil rights movement begins to fall off. As historians Robert Korstad and Nelson Lichtenstein said of the coalition, “it was an opportunity found and an opportunity lost.”

Though the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s to where we are now, it’s been a consistent undermining of that opportunity. Now we have a moment, again, of an opportunity found, an opportunity we can hopefully take hold of and take it to the full measure, to make the kinds of changes that are necessary to improve the lives of all Americans. What we need to guard against is people who have a vested interest in seeing the BLM movement collapse by sowing division along lines of race, ethnicity, class and generation.

I’m a believer that the most potent form of political participation happens at the local level. I’m not minimizing the power of presidential politics, but where we, as ordinary citizens, can make the most difference is at the local level; we have to know who we’re electing to city council and at the state level. And when I’m marching with Genevans of all colors, ages and from all classes, I am powerfully aware that they see things that are wrong and that they have the power to change it.

That’s why I teach. I have a responsibility to inform the young minds who come into class with the myth history of America. For example, all that’s taught of the “I Have a Dream” speech is that line and the one that follows it about people being judged by the content of their character not the color of their skin, but there’s more to it. King says in the preceding sentences: “We have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check … a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’… a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’” That’s how Black folks feel — that the promises made with the 13th and 14th Amendments are largely unfulfilled. We need to know that part of King’s speech because if we don’t, we’ll continue to have lost opportunities.

The work of the Black Lives Matter movement — making visible the systemic racism and racial injustice that plague our country — makes these cancers eating away at society harder to ignore. Social media has been integral, and it’s where students get a lot of their information, so it’s interesting to find a way to have them think through what they’re reading, the information they’re getting. I believe that open discussion in the classroom is the best way. I give my students a historical narrative, which is often a counter narrative to what they’ve learned in high school. For instance, in my seminar on Black women and the struggle for rights, we study women like Maria Stewart, an abolitionist and women’s rights activist who spoke out for Black freedom and rights in the 1830s; Jo Ann Robinson and the Women’s Political Council who organized the 1955–1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott; Ella Baker who founded SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) in 1960; and Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrice Cullers, co-founders of Black Lives Matter. Students often ask why they haven’t heard of these women before. They haven’t heard because the history textbooks haven’t included them until relatively recently. Black women have been the backbone of protest and radical movements in this country all the way back, but this has not been public knowledge. They have been largely excluded from the dominant historical narrative. On an individual level in the classroom I can help students think through this received narrative and the premises it’s based on, and they can come to their own conclusions. For me, whatever work I do in the classroom and outside of it is about being a conscious individual and putting that consciousness into practice. I strongly believe that knowledge is useless unless you pass it on. In this way, I hope to help create and make use of opportunity for change.