"Civil Rights" and "Movements"

Two widely used terms, "civil rights" and "movement," deserve close scrutiny. The term "civil rights" has always defied neat definition. But with the success of the civil rights movement in the South and the expansion of black protest to the North during the 1960s, the meaning of "civil rights" grew even murkier. In the 1950s and early 1960s, southern blacks could readily discourse on what the quest for "civil rights" meant. Every day as they ate at a segregated lunch counter or rode in the their assigned section in the back of a public bus, they were reminded that they lacked full "civil rights"--that is, legal rules and guarantees that protected citizens in a "variety of freedoms," mainly "political in nature, such as freedom of speech, press, petition, and assembly" and protected them against "injury or impediment" by individuals, institutions, or government in their "ordinary social and economic pursuits." (1)

Yet in the 1960s just as the black protest movement secured basic civil rights for blacks, there was a corresponding expansion of the scope of "civil rights." In the North, activists began to look for much more subtle civil rights violations by public and private institutions than the refusal to serve blacks at restaurants, theatres, and the like. In Chicago, for instance, activists began to recognize how a seemingly benign concept like the neighborhood school policy could quietly, cleverly, and effectively be used to deny blacks their full civil rights. At the same time, protest leaders like Martin Luther King began to comprehend how closely the moral health of America and the welfare and citizenship status of black Americans were connected to economic equality. After the Selma campaign King often remarked that the crusade for racial justice had entered a new phase. "Civil rights" came to embrace economic parity and other qualities often associated with "human rights." SCLC's Chicago campaign reflected the transitional stage of the civil rights movement. Its major goal was eliminating slums, an economic target, but it expended much energy on ending housing discrimination, a quest well within the old civil rights tradition.

The term "movement" also requires definition. The phrase is often misapplied. Simply because a few individuals stage a couple of protests in a community should not constitute a "movement." A movement must have i) the allegiance of a sizeable number of citizens, including a sense of membership; ii) the capacity to sustain protest; iii) a coordinating center provided by charismatic leadership, strong institutions or both. (2) Thus, I do not speak of a Chicago civil rights movement until 1963. To be sure, there were local, neighborhood movements earlier, but not until 1963 was there substantial citywide coordination of these disparate efforts. It is also possible, of course, to rank movements according to how fully they embody "movement" qualities. In light of the almost universal black participation and its longevity, the Montgomery (Alabama) movement of 1955-1956 approached the "ideal movement." Never able to mobilize the Chicago masses for a long duration, the Chicago civil rights movement, on the other hand, did not.

1) My definition of civil rights is taken from Herman Selz, Emancipation and Equal Rights: Politics and Constitutionalism in the Civil War Era (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978).

2) in reaching this definition, I have been helped by Lewis M. Killian's thoughtful essay, "Social Movements," in Robert E. L. Faris, ed., Handbook of Modern Sociology (Chicago: Rand McNally and Co., 1964), pp. 426-455.

--JRR