Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Long Civil Rights Movement Today

As I’m sure many of you have read in the news, Oberlin College has suffered a series of hate crimes this past week. (see article below) There were several incidents that drew attention: the defacing of black history month posters around campus, a late-night sighting of an individual in a KKK robe, and the use of spray paint to mark bathrooms and water fountains as “whites only”. These outbursts have come as a surprise to many, especially the students and staff at the College, because Oberlin is historically a very liberal school.
I was struck by this article not only because of this shocking display of white supremacy and racism, but also because of the reaction of the school, both of which reminded me of topics discussed in our class. The college’s administration cancelled school today declaring a “day of solidarity” in order to address the recent hate-crimes occurring on campus. The college explained that this would still be a day of learning though by alternative means. Oberlin students crammed into the chapel to have an open discussion about the recent events and their ramifications.
To me, this recalled elements of the long civil rights movement we have so often spoken about in class. The civil rights movement is often restricted to the period between in 1954 and 1968. This creates a couple of misconceptions: first, that this was the period of time that African Americans took action against their oppression and secondly, that the rhetoric and culture of white supremacy was isolated to the time preceding and during the civil rights movement. Both of these assumptions of the master narrative dilute the reality of race-relations in the US.  
 In the case of the Oberlin College incidents, this is a testament to the idea that the civil rights movement cannot be tied to a specific period in time but is an ongoing movement. As demonstrated at Oberlin, there is still a strong culture of racism and antagonism between races in the US, even amongst populations perceived to be “liberal” or “accepting”. While I am unsure of the efficacy of Oberlin’s decision to shut down the school for a day in addressing these events, or how it might prevent future incidents, their actions demonstrate a will to deal with problems that might otherwise be depicted as irrelevant in our “modern” era. The civil rights movement, in my mind, is something that is still with us today in the form of education disparities, gay rights, access to healthcare etc. though they are usually not qualified in these terms.


  1. Elizabeth, I am so glad you wrote about the incidents at Oberlin College. When I first read the article I was surprised that it happened at what we deem a liberal school. Why did it bother me that it was a liberal school? I guess I assumed that students of our generation wouldn’t harbor racist feelings that their parents or grandparents held. Therefore, I realized what bothered me the most is that my/our peers were performing these racist actions. A generation free of Jim Crow and segregation is still experiencing racism. This leads me to wonder what causes youth to become racist. Is it the ever-present segregation in schools? Could it be racial profiling in the police force? Is it the lack of diversity in our neighborhoods? I wonder if all of these institutions unknowingly demonstrate that one race is better than the other. With this in mind, you are exactly right when you say that the civil rights movement cannot be tied to any time period. Although it may not be as easy to recognize, such as Jim Crow laws, racism and inequalities are still present in institutions – specifically the institutions you mentioned in your last sentence.

  2. I agree as well. The Civil Rights movement continues to this day. Just as an examples, for my last primary source paper I wrote about a woman who grew up Birmingham and experienced the Civil Rights Movement from listening to Dr. King's speeches, marching in the protests, and running from the police whenever they let loose the dogs and hoses. She went on to get a degree in Science at Tuskegee, go to Medical School at Univ. of AL at Birmingham, and later work in the lab of UAB Birmingham. During her time in the medical and professional field at UAB Birmingham she experienced some of the worst racism she had ever encountered. White teachers and employers hated her. The racism in the professional field lasted until she retired in the nineties even after she did an interview for 60 Minutes on racism in the workplace and in school. The experience showed her (and me!) that the Civil Rights Movement will never be over as long as any injustice exists.

  3. I hadn’t heard about this, so thank you for posting, Elizabeth. Kate, I was also shocked to hear these events occurred at a school as progressive as Oberlin, and one not that far removed from our own. I’m also interested as to how the guilty students came to these racist thoughts and actions, especially in an environment as historically inclusive as Oberlin. This racism was most certainly learned, but from where? I find this to be an indictment on both the parents and the culture. Though our peers did not grow up under the Jim Crow laws of the past, our parents were coming of age in the height of the Movement. As we’ve discussed in class before, just because enough legislation had been passed and widespread racism had seemingly calmed down by the late 1970s and 80s, it in no way meant that all White Americans had accepted the new racial status quo. These embittered individuals have since attempted to keep their versions of the proper societal hierarchy alive and well in institutional and family circles. Like Della said, its events like these that make me believe the Civil Rights Movement will, unfortunately, be much longer.