Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Greensboro 4 at 50

Monday marked the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Greensboro sit-ins. The actions of those four students -- Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond and Joe McNeil -- set in motion a new wave of civil rights activism.

Indeed, when I talk about the Civil Rights Movement I often try to hold two wholly contradictory ideas in my head at once, knowing they cannot both possibly be true. On the one hand, I embrace the idea of the Long Civil Rights Movement. In Freedom's Main Line I trace the story of the fight to desegregate interstate transportation back in considerable depth to the 1940s and recognize movements well before that decade (Plessy v. Ferguson, after all, involved transportation and not education.) In one of my current book projects I am looking at bus boycotts in the US and South Africa in the period between about 1940 and 1960.

On the other hand, there are times when I think that what began with the sit-ins really represents a new stage in civil rights, and that we might be as well served thinking of the period from February 1960 as almost sui generis in its new approach to direct-action protest. In that view, the Long Civil Rights Movement still holds, but that we then begin to think of the movement in terms of phases. This might help both to revive looking at Brown v. Board as a starting point (something that has been passe with the Long Civil Rights Movement's recent sway) for a phase of the movement while still recognizing that Brown really was not the start or beginning of anything when it comes to the movement as a whole.

I think the emphasis on the 1940s in particular has been essential. But I do not think we should let that swallow up the significant shift that the Greensboro 4 helped usher in and that the Freedom Rides helped connect. In the next few years prepare for a lot of 50th anniversary celebrations and commemorations and reflections of the lightning storm of events of the period from 1960 to 1965 or so.


ed schmitt said...

Derek - I've thought a lot about this and I agree with your take here. I'm sure you're very familiar with Eric Arnesen's article in response to the surge of LCRM work, and setting aside the element of his critique focusing on what he sees as the attachment of those writing in that vein to developments in the 1930s, I think he does have a point echoing what you're suggesting when he cites E.P. Thompson on the nature of social movements. And I think Hall also tries to set aside the period beginning in 1954 as the "classical" period in her long civil rights JAH piece. So this does not seem to me to necessarily be contradictory or paradoxical. In my chapter on the Kennedys and civil rights I argue that there was a distinctively new momentum that came to a head in the years from 1960-1965.

dcat said...

Ed --
Paradox was probably the wrong word. I guess it seems contradictory for those not as familiar with the historical trends.

Best, and congrats on the new book.