The New Civil Rights Moment: A Recap

Black Lives Matter, November 2015 [photo: Johnny Silvercloud; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

Campaigns for social change can appear to erupt spontaneously—a woman refuses to give up her seat on a bus, a recording is leaked, a man is assassinated in broad daylight—and a response grows that cannot be silenced for a decade. 

The truth is, of course, injustice is a constant always met with opposition. But the cocktail that determines whether a substantial social movement will emerge from a single act is an amalgam of inherent public awareness, press coverage, sustained interest, and most importantly the event’s relative digestibility. The fire to kindling is a seemingly succinct occurrence of otherwise complex systemic issues rendered legible, even to the least politically engaged. It is an event with the potential to become a cultural or political symbol. It possesses a rhythm that becomes a rallying cry. The 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin and, perhaps even more so, the 2013 acquittal of his killer possessed all of these elements and launched the United States into a new era of direct action. 

The emergence of #BlackLivesMatter, however, did not denote an awakening, per se. From police encounters to judges’ rulings, state injustices had been experienced or otherwise observed since the birth of this nation. In the modern era, uncles, husbands, brothers, fathers, wives, aunts, sisters, and mothers have been pulled over without cause, assaulted, and have faced biased juries following unjust arrests. Some get through it. Some go to prison. Some die. 

The tragic death of this teenager crystalized the phenomenon, and for a time his story eclipsed coverage of the presidential election. The People harnessed this moment while the world was watching, and they turned old outrage into new action. 

Camera phones and social media married, and information was dispatched to millions like never before. Around the globe, digital platforms became a powerful, transformative arm of advocacy work. In the US, bearing witness to the deaths of other people’s uncles, husbands, brothers, fathers, wives, aunts, sisters, and mothers deepened the realization that these were not just personal tragedies, but the nation’s tragedy—an epidemic.

Once eyes were opened, there was more to see. Jordan Davis, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Yvette Smith, Ezell Ford, Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, and numerous other precious lives lost. Grief and outrage manifested in the Million Hoodie March, the Ferguson Uprising, the Justice for All march and rally, and related demonstrations in more than 100 cities. Civil disobedience, police firings, civil lawsuits, and the occasional criminal conviction of a vigilante or member of law enforcement resulted in some reforms: updated police training, the introduction of bodycams, moderated police-community discussions, increased use of de-escalation techniques, and US history and civil rights courses for rookie officers. These efforts produced tangible results. Even as police-involved killings of unarmed people continue to disproportionately affect African Americans, reports show such incidents declined significantly by the end of the 2010s. 

Despite progress, pundits continued to use their platforms to fuel suspicion and anger. Right-leaning pundits pretended not to understand that no one said their lives didn’t matter, and Left-leaning outlets responded in kind by fanning flames of division. Minute details of police-involved deaths were contentiously disputed. Like raindrops on the sea, the names of the fallen blurred together. Debates stopped centering victims and became a battleground for political parties, winner determined by emotionality and volume. 

Polarity peaked with the election of President Donald Trump. His win had the impact of galvanizing those who sympathized with social justice causes but had previously sat passively on the sidelines. It also revived previously active participants who’d grown fatigued and tuned out in the name of self-care. These groups joined ranks with activists and leapt into a level of democratic participation unseen in a generation. Interest in local politics increased, with packed town hall meetings and a historic, record-breaking midterm election voter turnout. 

Martin Luther King Jr. described racism as but one aspect of a system of oppression that exploits many groups in different ways. His opposition to poverty, war, apartheid, and colonialism reflected a shift from a focus on individual rights to a call for a global freedom movement, an international revolution of values. This call was a beacon to all oppressed groups. In the immediate aftermath of the successful passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, other constituencies raised their banners. The American Civil Rights Movement proved strategies for change and equipped marginalized groups with the language to articulate their plight in appeals to Congress throughout the 1960s and 70s. Many activists worked within multiple movements, sharing strategies that improved each. Just as second wave feminism, the farm labor movement, and the LGBTQ movement responded to—and were in dialogue with—the Civil Rights Movement, #BlackLivesMatter signaled a range of advocates to exercise their rights to assembly, expression, and dissent, as was expressed in the Women’s marches of 2017 and 2018, #NoBanNoWall airport protests, the #SayHerName and #MeTooMovement awareness campaigns, and March for Our Lives. Many of these actions were among the largest mass demonstrations in United States history. 

Today, people of differing social and political beliefs are aware of potential backlash to their statements and actions, sometimes with concrete social or professional repercussions. No matter their true leanings and allegiances, most fear accusations of racism, sexism, or xenophobia. Shame has ruled in favor of inclusion, but methods of achieving it have thus far proved fruitless. Despite considerable funds invested in diversity and inclusion training and programs, there have been no substantial shifts in representation across industries some 60 years after the American Civil Rights Movement. Pamela Newkirk, author of Diversity, Inc.: The Failed Promise of a Billion-Dollar Business, notes that fields commonly considered most progressive—art and fashion—are actually the industries most starkly lacking in diversity, particularly along the color line. Theoretical talks at staff retreats have been promoted over applied changes in company policy, hiring strategy, and collections management. Approaches that fail to address implicit biases stemming from generations of subconscious messaging and socialization do not tackle systemic structures that leave certain groups out of the selection pool and have resulted in industries that remain mostly white. In other words, talking about diversity is not enough. Social and economic disenfranchisement of groups was achieved through concerted efforts and codified in multiple realms of society. Reversing it will require the same. Ensuring access to education, as well as providing internships, training, and mentorship to underrepresented groups are among things required to begin leveling the playing field. 

In 2020 we are beginning to see reception to discourses that thoughtfully engage these complexities. The changing tide is evidenced in complaints from people who have long benefitted from exclusion and unpunished inappropriateness, the likes of whom utter such things as, “People are too sensitive these days. I’m nervous to even make a simple joke.” 

To that I say, good. Consider your words. Be nervous. Our work is to make that feeling last. 




This feature originally appeared in ART PAPERS Spring 2020 // Art of the New Civil Rights Era. 


Lauren Tate Baeza is a curator, anthropogeographer, and Africanist based in Atlanta. She has a professional background in art museums, history museums, and international nongovernmental organizations. Baeza currently serves as director of exhibitions at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and is curator of the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection. She holds an MA in African Studies from UCLA and a BA in AfricanStudies from California State University, Northridge. Baeza has spoken at conferences, universities, and federal departments on a range of cultural and sociopolitical topics related to Africa and the African diaspora.