With few members of the current generation of Americans remembering the Civil Rights Move-ment, questions are being raised about the relevance of the movement in an increasingly diverse society. How can the 1960s campaign for Black civil rights, which wrought historical changes in American society, remain alive? By transforming itself into a global human rights crusade, followers say.
To that end, the Association of American Retired Persons (AARP), the Library of Congress and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) last summer embarked on a bus tour across America to collect first-person accounts of civil rights memories. The tour lasted 70 days and covered 22 states. Events were held in more than 40 cities, in many of the pivotal battlegrounds of the so-called Freedom Riders who, early on, fought segregation in the nation’s transportation network and later assisted in registering voters. “This particular project was possible because as an organization AARP has over 35 million members who are over 50 and lived through a seminal part of American history,” says Rick Bowers, project director and director of digital media for AARP publications. “Many of our members had never talked about their personal recollections and this gave them a chance to show how the movement affected them and how their lives were changed.”
The memories collected by reporters on the tour will be made available through the Library of Congress this month. Also available is My Soul Looks Back in Wonder, a book by Juan Williams that documents stories, and specials on the Discovery Channel. “The project was more of a vision towards the future than a look back,” says Wade Henderson, LCCR executive director. “We wanted the past to serve as a foundation to the young people joining the movement. To let them see how one individual really can make a difference and how actions by individuals changed this country from a system of white supremacy and oppression to becoming the world’s largest representative democracy.”
But as discrimination continues unabated worldwide, civil rights organizations are hoping to rally today’s workers, both in the United States and abroad, to their cause. Whether it’s a fight against anti-Semitism in Germany or political oppression in Iraq, it is as important as a fight for quality education in Topeka, Kansas, they argue. “We are aggressively reaching out to younger and more diverse members who share our core values and mission of equal opportunity and access in all segments of American life,” says Roslyn M. Brock, vice chairman of the National Association for the Advance-ment of Colored People. The NAACP will be 100 years old in 2009. The emergence of Latinos as the country’s biggest ethnic minority is forcing civil rights transformers to consider that group’s unique challenges as they relate to the struggles of African-Americans. “The increase of the Latino population is not overshadowing the rights of Blacks because we have many issues that overlap in regards to voting rights, education, access to health care and housing,” Henderson says. The Latino community has issues that pertain to them alone, but as a whole our similarities are greater than our differences.”
Brock shares that view. “We must identify opportunities where our collective communities can coalesce and forge alliances to promote our collective social and economic agenda. If not, the faces at the bottom of the well will continue to languish and suffer in silence,” she says.
By Inés Bebea