The Diverse Quest for Civil Rights

By Lawrence Hanks

America's Constitution provides U.S. citizens with a host of rights. Chief among them are the rights to free speech, freedom of religion, and equal protection of the law. Our Declaration of Independence provides the philosophical foundation for the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Despite the promises of the Constitution and the philosophical ideals of the Declaration of Independence, American citizens have faced and continue to face discrimination based on race, age, gender, sexual orientation, and abilities. All of this discrimination has been challenged by formalized movements with various degrees of success.

Movements start from a point of marginalization and delegitimation by the powers of the state and of social institutions. They often proceed through the following actual and theoretical stages:

  1. Some individuals or groups of individuals perceive their delegitimation and marginalization as a problem.
  2. A leadership group articulates the dissatisfaction, organizes resources, and forms a movement to challenge the status quo.
  3. The demands of the movement are initially rejected by the state.
  4. After continuous advocacy by the marginalized group, using a multiplicity of strategies, the state accepts the legitimacy of the demands and enacts appropriate public policies.
  5. The leadership group continues to maintain legiti-macy, solidify support, and expand rights.
  6. Opposing forces continue to challenge rights and restrict the gains of the movement.
  7. The movement reaches a stage of unchallenged legitimacy.
Establishing the Framework: The African American Movement for Civil Rights
The post–World War II civil rights movement (1955-1968) was another installment in an ongoing struggle for African American equity. Since 1641, when Massachusetts codified African American slavery into law, there has been an African American civil rights movement. Although the elderly, persons with disabilities, women, and gays were facing discrimination between 1955 and 1968 when Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the post-World War II African American civil rights movement, the movements for women's rights and gay rights were in a state of dormancy while movements for the rights of the elderly and of the disabled had not yet begun.

Rosa Parks sparked the modern African American civil rights movement when she refused to move from her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus. Although others had possessed her courage and fought to keep their seats, Parks' timing (after Brown v. Board of Education), reputation, organizational affiliations, and social status made her an ideal test case for Montgomery's bus segregation laws. By the time the Interstate Commerce Commission ruled the bus company's segregation policy illegal, a twenty-six-year-old King, having served as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association and leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, was on the precipice of becoming America's premier civil rights leader.

By the time of King's assassination on April 4, 1968, the major goals of the post–World War II civil rights movemen--access to public places and voting rights-- had been achieved. When Congress passed the Fair Housing Act of 1968, partially as a tribute to King, the final vestige of state endorsed discrimination fell to the progressive forces of the movement. For the first time in American history, there were no national laws that overtly discriminated against African Americans.

The success of this phase of the African American quest for civil rights inspired other traditionally disempowered groups. The 1970s saw other people of color, the elderly, persons with disabilities, women, and gays, mobilize politically to challenge their legal marginalization and delegitimation. One result of all this activity is the study of the traditionally disempowered in academe. Thus, this issue of Research & Creative Activity focuses on civil rights by highlighting research on age, disabilities, race, gender, and sexual orientation. A 1965 version might reasonably have focused exclusively on African American civil rights.

The miraculous advancement of modern medicine has created a cohort of older Americans who are more energetic and vibrant than their predecessors. Much of their energy has been channeled into the protection of their interest. Thus, issues of mandatory retirement, Medicare, and Medicaid are issues of vital importance to American politicians.

The rights movement for persons with disabilities is perhaps the most widely accepted movement among the traditionally disempowered. Evidence of the movement's impact is most visible in the plethora of choice handicapped parking spots that have become an integral part of our landscape. The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 provides more evidence of an effective and vital movement.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is considered the most extensive piece of social legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Among other stipulations, the legislation prohibits discrimination in any program or activity that uses federal funds or federal contractors. Moreover, the private sector is prohibited from discriminating against the disabled, and "reasonable accommodation" must be made to provide access for the disabled in all buildings using federal funds.

Race has traditionally been a basis for the denial of civil rights. Native Americans continue to face discrimination in the mainstream culture. African Americans survived slavery, Jim Crowe, and discrimination to gain equality before the law by the time of King's death in 1968. Latinos, soon to become America's largest minority, have faced, and continue to face, many of the same obstacles as African Americans. While Asian Americans have been dubbed "the model minority" because of their high per capita socioeconomic status and levels of achievement, they have also struggled for equal treatment under the law.

Although both African American and Caucasian women participated in the post-World War II civil rights movement, they were marginalized within this male dominated movement. The women's movement in its various phases has a long history in American politics. In the 1980s race, class, and ethnicity became more serious concerns for feminists. Black women in particular began to formulate the "womanist" movement in which they see themselves as doubly blessed despite their double marginalization. As these movements have begun to challenge traditional gender roles and cultural expectations and to demand equal pay for equal work, men have responded by organizing their own groups. While some men's organizations seek liberation from traditional gender roles and support the goal of equal protection under the law for women, others charge that men are victims of discrimination and seek to protect men's rights. One might posit that the "angry white male" phenomenon is the most recent visible response of a gender-specific effort to influence public policy.

Sexual Orientation
The gay rights movement presently has the lowest degree of acceptance and legitimacy among the movements of traditionally disempowered peoples. Although the advocates for gay, lesbian, and bisexual rights are highly organized and active, they carry the burden of being perceived as a threat to traditional family values and "normality." While some gains in public acceptance were made after the development of the birth control pill (when arguments for sex as a procreation activity lost substantial credibility), these gains were eroded when the American public began to view AIDS as a gay disease. Although the movement for gay, lesbian, and bisexual rights has had a modicum of success with antidiscrimination measures in many cities, state legitimation is not likely in the near future.

"I'm OK, You're Not OK": The Absence of Mutual Support
As all of the traditionally disempowered groups pursue greater acceptance and public policy benefits, they seek to gain as much support as possible. Ironically, these groups cannot count on each other for support. Although many public opinion polls uphold this assertion, the gravity of the lack of mutual support was profoundly illustrated for me in a class at Tuskegee University on "minority politics."

The class examined the rights movements of African Americans; women; gays, lesbians, and bisexuals; persons with disabilities; and the elderly. The all African American class had attitudes of unshakeable support for the goals of the African American movement. While all of the women supported the general goals of the women's movement, approximately half of the males in the class either were against the movement as they understood it or expressed lukewarm support. The majority of the class voiced passionate disdain for the goals of the rights movement for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. There was practically unanimous support for all aspects of the rights movements for the elderly and the disabled.

One male student articulated the predominant sentiment of the class. In essence, he said that as an African American male, he understood the problems of African American oppression, but because he was neither female nor gay, he could not "identify with the problems of those groups." Thus, he did not provide support for these movements. In as much as he hoped to live a long life, he expected to be elderly. Moreover, he reasoned that he could possibly become handicapped. Thus, he supported the goals of these movements.

It is apparent that, in my Tuskegee class and in American society at large, the theory of concentric concerns operates. Individuals tend to care most about themselves and those who are close to them: the further individuals and issues move from the sphere of activities of others, the less concern the majority has for the problems of those individuals. Until there is a sense of connectedness, traditionally disempowered groups will tend to act out of the "I'm OK, you're not OK" posture.

A State of Eternal Vigilance
The price of democracy is external vigilance--no victory is ever final. While advocates celebrate an election or the passing of legislation, opponents are often strategizing how to win the next election or how to circumvent the legislation. As long as there are human differences, society will probably allocate unequal values to those differences. This inequality will more than likely find its way into the official public policy of our government. Thus, the various movements wax and wane as they are influenced by the existing conditions in the local, state, and national bodies politic. The stage of "unchallenged legitimacy" is a theoretical one. In the world of real politics, no movement, especially one for a traditional