The Black Civil Rights Movement is Back

Out of Abeyance and Onto Our Streets, Campuses, and Social Media

Marchers are seen through a sign printed on glass during a 'Millions March' demonstration protesting the killing of unarmed black men by police on December 13, 2014 in Oakland, California. Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

It has risen to the surface periodically over the last couple of decades, always in the turbulent wake of racist events and violence. It rose when Rodney King was beaten by police on a Los Angeles street in 1991, and when Abner Louima was brutalized by NYPD officers in 1997. It rose again two years later, when the unarmed Amadou Diallo was shot 19 times by NYPD. Then again in 2004, when, following the great flood, the majority-black city of New Orleans was left to fend for itself as police, the National Guard, and vigilantes murdered citizens at will. It rose when it became apparent in the late aughts that NYPD was systemically racially profiling black and brown boys and men with its Stop-N-Frisk policy. More recently, it rose when George Zimmerman murdered 17 year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012, and then got away with it, and when, within two months in 2013, Jonathan Ferrell and Renisha McBride were shot and killed while seeking help after surviving car accidents. There are countless other instances that could be included in this list.

The Black Civil Rights Movement has never gone anywhere. Despite the legislative gains and the (limited) social progress that followed its peak in 1964, it has continued to exist in the minds, lives, and politics of many; and, in important national institutions like the NAACP, the ACLU, and in research and activist organizations that work tirelessly to track and call attention to systemic and everyday racism. But a mass movement, it has not been since the late '60s.

From 1968 until the present, the Black Civil Rights Movement has been in a cycle of what sociologist and social movements expert Verta Taylor refers to as "abeyance." Oxford English Dictionary defines abeyance as "a state of temporary disuse or suspension." Taylor developed and popularized the sociological use of the term in the late 1980s in her studies of the US women's movement. In 2013, writing with Alison Dahl Crossley, Taylor described social movement abeyance as "a holding pattern in which a social movement manages to sustain itself and mount a challenge to authorities in a hostile political and cultural environment, thereby providing continuity from one stage of mobilization to another." Taylor and Crossley explain, "When a movement declines, it does not necessary disappear. Rather, pockets of movement activity may continue to exist and can serve as starting points of a new cycle of the same or a new movement at a later point in time."

Sociologist Kevin C. Winstead used the concept of abeyance as developed by Taylor to describe the Black Civil Rights Movement from the period of 1968 through 2011 (the time of his study's publication). Citing the work of sociologist Douglas McAdam, Winstead details how the passing of Civil Rights legislation and the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. left the mainstream Black Civil Rights Movement without a sense of direction, momentum, or clear objectives. Simultaneously, the more radical members of the movement split off into the Black Power movement. This resulted in a fractured movement with disparate camps aligned with distinct organizations, including the NAACP, the SCLC, and Black Power working with different strategies on different goals (also a marker of a movement in abeyance). Winstead uses historical research to show how following the passage of Civil Rights legislation, and the false believe that racism had been vanquished by it, activists against racism were increasingly framed as criminals and deviants by the mainstream press. The racist caricature of the Reverend Al Shaprton as a lunatic and the racist stereotype of the "angry black man/woman" are common examples of this trend.

But now, things have changed. State sanctioned extra-judicial police and vigilante killings of black people, most of them unarmed, are unifying black people and their allies across the US and around the world. The reemergence of the movement has been building for years, but it would seem that the technological developments that enable social media and widespread adoption of it has proved pivotal. Now, people across the nation know when a black person is unjustly killed anywhere in the US, regardless of the size and location of the crime, thanks to the sharing of news stories and the strategic use of hash tags.

Since Michael Brown was killed by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO on August 9, 2014, protests have surged across the nation, and have only increased in frequency and grown in size as the killing of unarmed black children and adults has continued since Brown's death. The hash tags #BlackLivesMatter and #ICan'tBreath--referencing the police choke-hold murder of Eric Garner--have become the slogans and rally cries of the movement.

These words and their messages now course through US society, plastered on signs held by protesters in the 60,000 strong "Millions March" held in NYC on December 13, and in the marches featuring tens of thousands more in Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Boston; San Francisco and Oakland, California; and other cities and towns across the US. The Black Civil Rights Movement thrives now in the solidarity forged by frequent die-ins staged nationwide in public spaces and on college campuses, in the workplace protests of members of Congress and black professional athletes, and in the protest songs recently released by John Legend and Lauryn Hill. It thrives in the scholarly activism of teachers at all levels of the education system who have taught from The Ferguson Syllabus, and in the public promotion of research that proves that racism is real, and that it has deadly consequences. The Black Civil Rights Movement is no longer in abeyance. It is back with righteous passion, commitment, and focus.

Though I am devastated by the recent events that have called it out of abeyance, I see hope in its very public and widespread return. I say to all members of the Black Civil Rights Movement, and all black people of the US (paraphrasing Kara Brown of Jezebel): I do not feel this pain the way you feel this pain. I do not fear the way you fear. But I too seethe at the vicious scourge of racism, and I pledge to fight it, always, in whatever ways you deem worthy.

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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "The Black Civil Rights Movement is Back." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2020, August 27). The Black Civil Rights Movement is Back. Retrieved from Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "The Black Civil Rights Movement is Back." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 28, 2021).