Monday, January 15, 2024

The Civil Rights Movement and the American Communitarian Spirit


Today we remember and celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. 

King, a black man living in a racially segregated America, stood tall in a sea of hate, bigotry, and divisiveness. 

But, while he was no doubt an integral part of the Civil Rights movement's success, nothing would have been accomplished without the laborious and persistent efforts of organized activist groups. 

There is perhaps no better example of this than the case of the Freedom Summer Project. I've blogged about this before (read here), but the lesson bears repeating. 

In the summer of 1964, a group of young Civil Rights activists traveled to heavily segregated Mississippi to stage various demonstrations in the midst of hostile inhabitants and law enforcement. Individuals from these networks of black and white college students were beaten, kidnapped, and, in some cases, killed. 

Doug McAdam, a professor of sociology at Stanford University, contributed the defining study of Freedom Summer for the American Journal of Sociology in 1986. In it, McAdam details the high-risk activism that took place during these demonstrations:  

Within days, three project members - Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman - had been kidnapped and killed by a group of segregationists which included several Mississippi law-enforcement officers. That event set the tone for a summer in which the remaining volunteers endured beatings, bombings, and arrests. Moreover, most did so while sharing the grinding poverty and unrelieved fear that were the daily lot of the black families who housed them. 
These young people demonstrated the power of collective action. As I've stated before, isolated individuals could have never effectuated this social change. 

We ought not forget about what these activist networks achieved. It should serve as an important reminder of what social capital can accomplish. 

Now, most problems that we face on a day-to-day basis are not nearly as grave as combating racial segregation in the 1960s. Most things that concern us are, in fact, very micro: a city block that needs to be repaired, a traffic sign that ought to be installed at a dangerous intersection, or other comparatively trivial community services. But the same lessons can be applied here, too. 

In Better Together: Restoring the American Community, Robert Putnam and Lewis Feldstein explain, through various case studies, that people engage in social capital, not for the sake of social capital in and of itself, but to accomplish some shared goal:

For the most part, the people and groups we describe here seek better schools, neighborhood improvement, better contracts with their employers, economic advantage, or some other particular good, with social capital a means to those ends and an important fringe benefit but not in itself their main aim.
The late Amitai Etzioni once wrote that America ought to be a "community of communities." We should aspire to this every day. 


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