Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Gladwell on the civil rights movement

In an otherwise perceptive recent New Yorker article debunking the notion of a "Twitter revolution" (that social media websites like Twitter and Facebook are the key tools of today's demonstrations and mass uprisings for social causes), Malcolm Gladwell, among our more savvy social critics, reveals a profound ignorance about the civil rights movement in this country.

After noting, for example, that the students involved in the early sit-ins across the South described the movement as a fever, he writes: "But the civil-rights movement was more like a military campaign than like a contagion. . . ."

Military campaign?

It was anything but, at least to my recollection. Indeed, it was the most unmilitary enterprise imaginable--egalitarian, grass roots, overwhelmingly bottom-up not top-down. Tactics and strategy were debated endlessly, rather than, as in the military, ordered and followed. And the movement indeed spread like a fever, a good, healthy, passionate fever, washing like an endless, cleansing wave across campuses and cities, in small towns and large, from the North to the South.

A personal note: Gladwell was born in 1963, when the old decades-long, rather staid, civil rights movement was getting into super-high gear. One year later, at the vibrant age of twenty-two, I became actively involved in that movement (up north). So Gladwell's information comes from archival research. Mine comes from organizing or joining rent actions against slumlords in Harlem, sitting-in at dangerous traffic intersections to demand street lights, picketing local white-owned stores to prevent firings, demonstrating against rampant police brutality. And from organizing, house to house, apartment to apartment, a residents' street group, the West 122nd Street Block Association.

Which meant knocking on doors, entering apartments, sitting around with the tenants, discussing with them, one on one, why it's important to do this and to do that--indeed, learning from them what we may have been doing wrong, and how to make it right--again and again, day after day, month after month. The work was difficult, frustrating and exhausting, but it was also joyous, exhilirating. Above all, contagious.

Now, Gladwell is not one to make a statement and then walk away from it without providing evidence. The problem is that the evidence he cites is inadequate. After stating that the key sources of the movement were the NAACP and black churches, he writes that the NAACP "was a centralized organization, run from New York according to highly formalized operating procedures. At the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the unquestioned authority. At the center of the movement was the black church, which had a carefully demarcated division of labor, with various standing committees and disciplined groups." He then quotes Aldon D. Morris' The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: "Each group was task-oriented and coordinated its activities through authority structures. Individuals were held accountable for their assigned duties, and important conflicts were resolved by the minister, who usually exercised ultimate authority over the congregation."

In short, to Gladwell, a military campaign.

Even if accurate, this history is incomplete. For it leaves out the movement's most important organization. Namely, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (pronounced Snick), which Gladwell never mentions. Although formed as an offshoot of Martin Luther King's organization, SNCC's members--who bore the brunt of white violence against the movement--were more akin to anarchic democracy workers or worker-priests than to organizational functionaries. It was the most grass-roots of the civil rights organizations, in which participants spent almost all their time and energy working one on one with poor black southerners.

As word of SNCC's work and experiences spread, other young people in the movement were influenced not only by their activities but by their methods of operation. For example, although the national office of the Congress on Racial Equality may well have had a top-down structure, the CORE chapters on campuses were far more egalitarian (some might argue unorganized). The CORE chapter at City College of New York, where I was a member, was typical. But so were the chapters at NYU and Columbia. And so were the non-student chapters like East Harlem CORE (known as the River Rats) and others throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. SNCC eventually became the model for the early new left Students for a Democratic Society, especially those involved in community organizing in places like Newark, New Jersey, or Cleveland, Ohio. Lest we forget, to the early SDS, hierarchy was anathema. SNCC and SDS also spawned the women's movement, in which most of the organizations were also non-hierarchical.

So when Gladwell dismisses the view of social media as fomenting mass activism, he may have a point (although the younger members of today's blogosphere appear to be enraged at that view) but for the wrong reason. "Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, from hierarchies." True enough. But hierarchies are not what made or characterized the civil rights movement, or any of the other 1960s-1970s cultural revolutions (women's rights, gay rights, anti-war, disabled rights, etc.) that sprang from it.

Rather, what characterized those movements was egalitarianism, in spirit, in structure, and in action.

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