Lessons from US Civil rights movement


Civil Rights, to put simply, are the rights of the people as written in the Constitution. These, inter-alia pertain to freedom of speech, religion, press, due process of law and the right to equal protection under the law.  US Civil Rights Movement, which actually began way back in 1783, took a new shape in the 1950’s, when African Americans came together in a series of non violent protests, popularly known as the Civil Rights Movement.

With the onset of new media and the resulting awareness in the civil society, the lessons of US Civil RightsMovement are as relevant today, as these were a few decades back. In modern times of Facebook, twitter, email, sms, the tools might have changed for the better, but the underlying spirit of camaraderie, brotherhood & non-violence still remains valid.

Respect for Human dignity, for one, is the lesson that we must learn from the history and make it a part of our lives. The segregation and differentiation may not be as marked and as differentiated as manifested in the earlier centuries, but there still are differences in our mindsets in subtle forms, differences of rich-poor, differences of literate-illiterate, differences of geography, which must go away, if we have to collectively rise up as a human race. Non-violence and its significance, is another lesson that we can draw from the movement. Coexistence, especially in nations like US and India, where diversity is a norm, is very important for a healthy democracy. Liberty, equality, freedom will have no meaning if taken in singularity, with each section of society defining and interpreting these terms in their own way.

Nobel laureate Martin Luther King Junior, was a major figure in the US Civil Rights Movement. His    “I have a dream” speech delivered on 28th August, 1963 is credited with mobilizing supporters of desegregation leading to significant developments in the coming years. Let us try to derive lessons of the US Civil Rights Movement from the words of this visionary leader only, from this and other speeches. This will be a befitting tribute to him as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the historical speech.

“In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must ever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force….We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We can not turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights- When will you be satisfied?…we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and the righteousness like a mighty stream….Let us not awllow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. “

“I think the greatest victory of this period was..something internal. The real victory was what this period did to the psyche of the black man. The greatness of this period was that we armed ourselves with dignity and self-respect. The greatness of this period was that we straightened our backs up. And a man can’t ride your back unless it’s bent.”

“The nonviolent approach does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor. It first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect, it calls up resources of strength and courage that they did not know they had. Finally it reaches the opponent and so stirs his conscience that reconciliation becomes a reality.”

And, in conclusion, we can see that the words and the thoughts of Martin Luther King Jr are as relevant today, as these were half a century back. The context in which he led the people might have been limited, but his philosophy was far-reaching and universal. His life was an example. He did what he preached.

So, whether the citizen meetings are organised using facebook, twitter or other means, the principles of non-violence, of equality, of justice, of freedom never change and that in essence is the learning from the US CivilRight Movement.

Coretta Scott-King, wife of the visionary leader put his philosophy in few words very beautifully.

“My husband often told the children that if a man had nothing that was worth dying for, then he was not fit to live. He said also that it’s not how long you live, but how well you live.”  



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