Today’s change movements are rooted deeply in the soil of the past.
Scholars of social change movements agree that activists have long looked to the U.S. civil rights movement for its inspiration, as well as its more practical lessons.
In a 2013 PBS News Hour interview Ruth Rosen, professor emerita of history at the University of California, Davis, noted the power of the civil rights movement. Rosen cited the connection between the 19th-century abolitionist movement and early women’s suffrage efforts. In the 20th century, she added, women active in the civil rights movement went on to form the National Organization of Women, (NOW). “So the civil rights movement has absolutely inspired twice in our history a fight for women’s equality,” Rosen said.
During that same interview, George Chauncey, co-director of the Research Initiative on the History of Sexualities and a professor of history and American studies at Yale University, pronounced the civil rights movement “the wellspring of all great movements for social justice and equality in the United States.”
The connection is particularly clear when examining the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the marriage equality movement of recent memory.
The civil rights movement that began in the 1900s — yes, there was organizing going on long before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus — heralds the concept of minority rights. It offers lessons in grassroots organization, political strategy, legislative maneuvering, judicial review and persistence. All of these elements were present in the decades-long effort to achieve marriage equality.
Time and effort, students and scholars of social movements know, is required for “radical” ideas to gain traction. Peter Dreier, an urban policy analyst and professor of politics at Occidental College, writes that in the end, “movements are about real people making choices about how to use their time, talents and resources."
Just as activists during the civil rights movement pushed their “radical” ideas of equality from the margins to the mainstream, marriage equality advocates followed a similar and lengthy path.
Now, some may recall a period of debate where individual black churches didn’t want the marriage equality movement linked to the civil rights struggle. The thinking was that the association somehow diminished what blacks endured and fought to achieve as they used non-violent protest to dismantle the Jim Crow laws of the South and ultimately attain passage of federal legislation in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Whether that argument has been completely overcome cannot be determined with all certainty. What is clear, is that beyond the freedom to marry regardless of gender are rights that do find close connection with the equality sought throughout the civil rights movement. Among them: that the public benefits of marriage — affecting such things as health insurance, immigration, taxes and Social Security — come not from a religious institution, but from the government. To deny gay marriage as a civil right would be discriminatory, much as it was discriminatory in the past to deny marriage between people of different races.
Questions of benefits, rights and discrimination are common considerations for the nation’s courts. Just as the civil rights movement looked to the Supreme Court in its Brown vs. Board ruling, so, too, the marriage equality movement sought equal protection under the 14th Amendment. In its June 2015, 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court agreed that bans on marriage equality are unconstitutional.
While the parallels of victory are to be savored, it is important to recognize the weaknesses of past movements in order to draw important lessons today. For example, we could explore the exclusion of women of color from the movement for women’s suffrage or the civil rights movement’s strong retrospective emphasis on charismatic leadership rather than the everyday people — among them men, women, young people and even children — who made up the majority of the movement and did the groundwork necessary to achieving change.
In the case of the marriage equality movement, President Barack Obama demonstrated an understanding of the power of individuals, giving credit where credit is due. His remarks following the ruling acknowledged the role of the court but praised the courage of citizens.
“That’s the consequence of a decision from the Supreme Court,” Obama said, “but, more importantly, it is a consequence of the countless small acts of courage of millions of people across decades who stood up, who came out, who talked to parents — parents who loved their children no matter what. Folks who were willing to endure bullying and taunts, and stayed strong, and came to believe in themselves and who they were, and slowly made an entire country realize that love is love.”
In the end, what the civil rights movement, the marriage equality movement and other change movements share, are an attempt by individuals, Dreier writes, to “improve their lives and the society in which they live.”
As we seek the change that promises to improve our lives and the lives of others, we would do well, as one young activist suggests, to consider the past as we work in the present to achieve the future.