Where's our "We Shall Overcome"?
By Erik Loomis
July 24, 2010
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
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"?
Erik Loomis is a visiting asst. professor of history at Southwestern
University. He blogs at Alterdestiny. He can be reached at eloomis20
[at] gmail [dot] com