Civil Rights Era Lessons for Secular Activism

Crowds surrounding the Reflecting Pool, during...
Crowds surrounding the Reflecting Pool, during the 1963 March on Washington. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don't write many posts on subjects about which I feel so confused, but this will be one of them. Some version of this has been floating around in my head for some time now, and it isn't getting any clearer. Maybe trying to write about it will help.

There is always a danger when watching old news footage assembled from a period of time before one was born. One never knows how much of it is an accurate reflection of the times or how well it fit the experience of those involved in the events being depicted. And this is particularly true when the people telling the story may have incentives for providing something other than a purely factual account.

I recently found myself watching something on the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s in the United States. I cannot recall the source of the content - it was something that had been on my DVR for ages, and I made the mistake of erasing it after I'd watched it without noting the source. If I had to guess, I think it might have been from CNN.

Anyway, one of the parts that stood out to me was how reluctant both presidents Kennedy and Johnson were to take action on civil rights. Understandably, both were focused elsewhere (i.e., Vietnam). Somewhat harder to understand, it sounds like Kennedy in particular really hoped the issue would just go away so he wouldn't have to risk White votes. Fortunately, the civil rights activists did not let him ignore the subject. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many others made it impossible for either president to ignore the issue for long.

As an adult, I've discovered that much of what I was brought up to believe about Kennedy was distorted by parents who seemed to think he could do no wrong. I've since learned that he had the same sort of human failings we all do. But I think this might have been the first time I saw him depicted as anything other than an eager champion of civil rights. It took pressure for him to come around. This made me think about how much both of the main political parties in the U.S. seem to want to ignore those of us who do not believe in gods and want a strong wall of separation between church and state. We cannot seem to make any real progress on something as obvious as getting the god references off our currency.

I was reminded of everything the civil rights activists risked in order to effect change. When all else failed, they deliberately held protests in the areas where the resident Whites were most likely to react with violence. The stomach-turning images of activists in Mississippi, Alabama, and Illinois being beaten, attacked by police dogs, and sprayed with fire hoses were broadcast on television throughout the country. Public opinion was transformed, and presidents could no longer afford inaction. Should secular activists be working harder to transform public opinion? And if so, how? Should we take far greater risks and be more vocal in speaking out, or should we continue to try to meekly convince people that we aren't as evil as they might fear?

Although I believe that any activist movement can learn from the example set during this era, it is not always clear to me how well these lessons translate into something like the modern secular movement. It seems to me that one of the core lessons is that those who opt to wait for others to stop treating them with bigotry and discrimination because these things are wrong are going to be waiting for a very long time. The civil rights activists did not take no for an answer. They made sure that nobody could ignore them for long. I struggle to translate what this might look like for secular activists today.

Some of the earlier forms of civil rights activism involved organized boycotts of businesses and business districts. Of course, most of these businesses were local. They were not the sort of chains we have today, and as a result, it was much easier to disrupt their business practices one neighborhood at a time. I'm not sure that such an approach is even possible today (e.g., Hobby Lobby). Even if activists in one community managed to shut down one branch of a chain, it is difficult to imagine a large corporation would even take notice.

I recognize that what secular activists face today is very different from what civil rights activists faced in those days. And yet, many of us cannot help feeling inspired by their efforts. We want to identify the core lessons they left for us, and we want to figure out what aspects of their example might apply today in the case of secular activism and the bigotry and discrimination directed at atheists. I guess I'm just not sure how to do that.