What were the failures of the Civil Rights Movement?

Patricia Anderson:
I do not believe that there were major failures within the movement itself...there were failures in the P.R., in that we did not get our message out clearly enough. There were failures in the leadership of the movement, because we had different groups taking charge, SNCC, CORE, NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership, and all were well meaning but confusing to the members of the movement. Finally, when SNCC insisted upon whites leaving the movement, it did not help but hurt in general. When Doctor King was murdered, many of us felt abandoned by the rest of the leadership.

Heather Tobis Booth:
Looking at the failures should also take into account the great progress of the movement (concrete victories, improving lives, giving confidence for future struggles in civil rights and other justice struggles at the time and today, and more). Failures can mean many different things — mistakes, better choices that could have been made, weaknesses that mean we fall short of our dreams, as well as some failures that undermine the on-going progress of the movement. Some are things we could not do very much about (reflecting the forces arrayed against us). Some reflect judgments we made ourselves. We shouldn't blame the movement for the failures of the society.

Here are three failures we can learn from.

  1. We did not go far enough.

    While every area of civil rights struggles need much more progress, economic, education, elections, and more, greater progress is evident in some areas than in others.

    The movement did not have the power to move for economic justice at the same level as it did for political power and so ended up with less than was needed of each.

    In the Taylor Branch books on Dr. King, he mentions that there was an agreement raised by Kennedy (I believe) that he would support the struggle for voting rights if the movement's focus on housing and economic issues was not treated as the same kind of priority. While there has been progress on voting rights (though even this is being terribly eroded!) there has been far less progress on economic justice. This largely reflects the financial power arrayed against us. Without economic equality (good paying jobs — not only for a few, but for large numbers, access to credit/housing, strong unions committed to equal rights to defend working people on the job), it is hard to have equality in other areas.

  2. We fell victim to factional fighting that drove many away.

    There are always questions about strategy —  do we accept a compromise or hold out for something closer to our vision? How do we ensure Black leadership in a movement for civil rights and have a role for supportive whites (without them dominating)? Do we emphasize our militancy or do we view that as a tactic in the struggle for greater impact? Often these and other questions led to division and diminished our numbers.

    Of course, this was aided by government and other agent provocateurs seeking to sow division. But a movement is built by addition, not subtraction. There were times we focused on who had the right answer, rather than the way to recruit more people and build majorities. We need political majorities to create the basis for greater progress.

  3. In the face of terror and stalled progress, we did not continue the push to organize.

    The movement improved skills at inside politics, gaining many big city mayoral and other elected positions. It was good at mobilization with demonstrations. But in the face of endless attacks, the on-going work of organizing was hard to sustain.

Terry Cannon:
Some thoughts on CRM "failures." I'd like to distinguish between failures, defeats, and impossibilities:
  1. The murder of MLK was a defeat. 100 cities burned in the aftermath. SNCC had already dissolved. Coherent leadership became impossible

  2. It was never our intent to change the hearts and minds of white racists, but to make them obey the law. In the latter, we were substantially successful.

  3. The betrayal of the MFDP [by the Democratic Party elite at the Atlantic City convention] was a defeat. We were not just abandoned, but opposed by our supposed liberal friends.

  4. It was impossible for the movement to provide a way out of economic deprivation and discrimination during the short historical period allowed us.

  5. Not reaching the lives of urban black people was part failure and part impossibility. We couldn't export a Southern movement into the North. The attempt tore us apart.

Bruce Hartford:
The biggest failure of the Civil Rights Movement was in the related areas of poverty and economic discrimination. Despite the laws we got passed, there is still widespread discrimination in employment and housing. Businesses owned by people of color are still denied equal access to markets, financing, and capital. Centuries of economic deprivation, and the problems stemming from it, remain largely un- addressed. We broke down the barriers that denied people access to public and commercial facilities based on their race, but the income barriers to even the most basic necessities such as food, shelter, clothing, and health care still remain in full force. If they have the money a Black family can now join the country club, but huge sectors of society cannot afford health coverage for themselves or their children.

We integrated the schools, but not the neighborhoods on which school districts are drawn. So today, inner-city schools composed of predominantly non-white students are marginalized and under-funded. We opened the doors to the Univeristy of Alabama, but have slammed them shut on students who come from failing K-12 schools.

Gabe Kaimowitz:
We made no dent on economic disparity and in part inadvertently contributed to a growing chasm between black middle class and black poor. Personally, I was chastized as a racist for being a lead counsel to have a school district to take into account black English dialect of isolated black students; I never was criticized by any black poor person to my knowledge; I was criticized by Roy Wilkins, Benjamin Hooks, and my white colleagues at the time.

Joan Mandle:
The Civil Rights Movement had many failures as do all social movements. But its strengths outweighed the mistakes it made and its legacy as a whole is a positive one. It was an INCLUSIVE movement — it included everyone who believed in justice and that was its lasting legacy.

Sheila Michaels:
The largest failure was the breakdown between Black & White activists. I have always thought that agents provocateurs (perhaps the FBI, which played a lot of "dirty tricks") stirred up animosity & resentment in the Movement.

There had always been an undercurrent of resentment of Whites by Black activists. It may have come to a head at the Waveland Meeting at the end of 1964, but it had been simmering since the beginning. Then the rift widened, until whites were told to go organize in the white community. (Sam Shirah & SSOC were already trying.)

The news media focused on the whites who came down for Freedom Summer, ignoring the Black activists who were being killed & beaten for years. You couldn't get any coverage unless whites were beaten up.

But people gave in to their own biases.

Wazir (Willie) Peacock:
The goals of the Civil Rights Movement were, in my estimation, limited. To a large degree, those goals were achieved, on the surface: integrating public facilities. You can ride from one end of the country to the other now without worrying about being hassled too much. But the bigger picture, I think the Civil Rights Movement could not achieve the changing of the hearts, because we were strictly using the law, the Constitution of the United States, that which was already legal but had not been enforced. Although they made new laws to bring some change about, but they already had good laws on the book. They just weren't being enforced. If I say we failed in any area, I'd say we might have failed in articulating to the population of this country what our goals were. I never thought that what we were doing would achieve the complete picture of what needed to be. But it would be a start. So I can't say we failed in what were trying to achieve.

Dick Reavis:
The local leader of the CRM in Demopolis said that the goal of the Movement was to give African-Americans a chance to have "decent houses, decent cars, and decent jobs." Our ghettos are evidence that if its object was the one he expressed, the movement won a few battles but lost the war.

Wally Roberts:
I think the Movement missed an important opportunity by failing to follow Dr. King's lead in identifying poverty as as big a challenge to full citizenship as the denial of voting rights. Income and wealth inquality based on race remain the fundamental causes of the country's most serious social problems. Understandably, King's murder and other events of the late '60s and early '70s created great turmoil that made it hard for us all to understand the necessity for priortizing a sustained campaign to rectify economic injustice. Fortunately, today, many more activists understand this problem, so there is hope the work can be carried on.

Many of us (at least many of us white allies in the Movement) also failed to understand how deeply entrenched racism was/is in America. I used to think, for instance, that one of the achievments of the Movement was that black men were no longer killed with impunity, but, of course, the events of the past few years have demolished that delusion. And the fact that the candidacy and election of Donald Trump have freed the restraints on expressions of violent racism only confirms how deep racism is rooted in the American psyche. We'll never eliminate racism, but I hope there will be a day when its expression is socially unacceptable and that those expessions that are made are

Jimmy Rogers:
I think that one of the places where we failed is that we weren't developing any kind of mechanism for the movement to perpetuate itself. We didn't try to work towards setting up some kind of system where we could perpetuate ourselves.

Jean Wiley:
Well, we didn't finish. There was a solid movement base in the South. The organizations were under enormous pressure to move to the North, that's why King went to Cicero. Some of us like myself really just had to get out of the South, at least for a breather. By then there were huge questions about the economics of oppression and so forth, and those had always been discussions, but that's where I thought the movement in the South would be heading. Very few people did stay for the long haul. While I understand it, I think, I thought then and I think now, that that was a mistake, because I think we could have had a really good base for continued organizing, continued critiquing of the society.


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