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Activism in America: Where’s our “We Shall Overcome”?

This is the first in a series of posts on Activism in the United States from regular GC contributor Erik Loomis. Let us know what you think!

I have an obsession with the state of activism in the United States. As a labor and environmental historian, I am constantly thinking about activism in the past and present. I look at successful social movements and wonder at our troubles creating effective change and sustaining long-term campaigns today.

This question has an incredibly complicated answer, enmeshed in historical and cultural context, wrapped up in class and race politics, and influenced by a niche capitalism which promotes individual expression over collective identity.

My next few columns will address activism in the past and present. It’s worth examining the movements progressives look to as models. The civil rights and 1960s movements dominate narratives of successful organizing in the United States, both because of their success and because their members are still alive. These movements motivated millions of Americans to activism, successfully altering the nation’s history.

These and all movements had what I call an “architecture of activism.” In brief, this is a shared set of symbols, heroes, songs, and other cultural reference points that provide an umbrella of common understanding necessary for organizing. For example, statues of Vladimir Lenin in the Soviet Union spoke to devoted communists around the world in specific ways that helped shape their ideology and activism. Each line in his face conveyed meanings to devotees. All movements, regardless of size, have an architecture that binds members together in solidarity. Political movements certainly have this, but so do, for instance, hipsters or underground rock scenes.

Freedom songs such as “We Shall Overcome” provided an architecture for the civil rights movement. These songs brought people together. Old and young, radical and conservative, black and white, civil rights workers united around these songs. They provided sustenance during beatings and while in jail. The songs, the shared history of suffering, the past and present leaders, food, and music: all of this brought people together to provide them inspiration, guidance, and collective identity.

The broad architecture that sustained civil rights activism could not hold up by the late 1960s. As the civil rights movement splintered into ethnic nationalism, feminism of various shades, the antiwar movement, and other social movements, each acquired their own cultural symbols. But these radical movements still shared much even if they didn’t often work together. Che Guevara and the doctrine of world revolution provided an ideological framework for many of these groups. Malcolm X gave them a hero and a path to accomplish their goals. Rock and roll, marijuana, and LSD gave these increasingly youth-dominated movements common cultural touchstones.

At the same time, youth culture began eroding the architecture that allowed for broad-based, multi-generational movements such as the early civil rights movement and the labor movement of the late nineteenth through mid-twentieth centuries. The rebellion of the Baby Boomers rejected the ideas and forms of their elders as out of date. Creating a culture defined as oppositional prioritized exclusivity. Organizing communities split by age. Boomers also had massive consumer power. Hippies began their own businesses to sell age and culturally-specific products to each other.

By the early 1970s, as the political tumult of the 60s waned, individualism supplanted collectivism in the minds of the young. But the ever-evolving youth culture remained powerful. Capitalists took advantage of these individualistic desires, creating niche markets for products. Popular music expanded from shared songs that most people knew to a wide variety of popular music along with underground scenes that appealed to particular small groups, but with no hope of massive popularity. Fashion and cable television had much the same affect. Our interests and shared cultural touchstones became shared with smaller and smaller groups of people. The old seemed out of date unless you were part of a niche group of people interested in old things.

Past decades became a series of stereotypes to alternately borrow from and scorn. From the 1960s, we occasionally mine the decade for retro fashions. Much of its music remains popular. We either admire or laugh at the hippies. But our ironic age has little use for the earnestness of 60s radicals. Starry-eyed beliefs don’t have much credence in 2010.

In the late 1990s, I was heavily involved in organizing in east Tennessee. We visited the Highlander Center, home to much civil and labor rights organizing since the 1920s. Still working at Highlander were Guy and Candie Carawan, folksingers, radicals, and long-time activists. People remember Pete Seeger but Guy Carawan was almost equally influential in the 1960s. Carawan helped popularize “We Shall Overcome” within the civil rights movement.

During the visit to Highlander, the Carawans led a sing-along. They led us through the old freedom songs. And it was special in a historical sense. How many opportunities like this do you get? But it the singing itself felt weird and awkward. While the older people were into it, the younger people mostly found the experience. Later that night, many complained about the out of date singing.

As a historian, I didn’t have a lot of patience for the complaints, but I definitely felt the discomfort. Singing those old-timey songs in an age of rock and roll sliced and diced for each demographic felt hokey. The slow but inspirational song structure of “We Shall Overcome” has no cultural resonance within modern music. These songs were not my cultural touchstones, no matter how much I respect them and the singers who made them famous. In an age of irony, who can take such earnestness seriously?

I am sad that I and other young people had this reaction to our experience with the Carawans. We can’t unite in a mass movement if we can’t speak to each other across generations, across class, across race and education and experience. A broad-based architecture of activism, with commonly shared symbols, cultural touchstones, and leaders must guide us.

In other words, what will be our “We Shall Overcome”?