Historical Events Shape African-American Activism

Spotlight on Wilson Center Fellow Fredrick Harris

Jun 03, 2004

When reflecting on the civil rights movement, most Americans tend to remember the more prominent events and actors: the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the courage of Rosa Parks, the March on Washington. While other heroic acts and tragic sacrifices over many years contributed to the ultimate justice achieved, these historic figures and events helped mobilize people to fight for change.

Wilson Center Fellow Fredrick Harris is researching how the collective memory of historical events has influenced African-American activism. Harris, an associate professor of political science and director of the Center for the Study of African-American Politics at the University of Rochester, is focusing on the civil rights movement, particularly the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a Chicago youth murdered while visiting family in Mississippi by two white men whom an all-white jury acquitted.

"Emmett Till is the symbol of civil rights," said Harris. "He has been called the sacrificial lamb of the civil rights movement."

The story of Till's murder quickly spread, garnering nationwide media attention and enraging black communities across the country. Before the murder trial and after the not-guilty verdict, rallies and demonstrations erupted in Chicago, and other northern cities. Published photos of Till's beaten body taken during the open-casket funeral further incited political activism.

Harris calls such defining incidents that have inspired activism, "the memory repertoire of black communities." He said, "There had been lynchings for generations. It's part of the terror of the African-American experience."

For Harris, some memories bring back other haunting memories. Harris recalled learning about the case of James Byrd, who was dragged to death by white supremacists in 1998 in Texas. Hearing that story triggered a suppressed memory from his childhood. One day, when Harris was growing up in Atlanta in the 1970s, his great grandmother came across a photo of his great-great grandfather. She said the Ku Klux Klan had lynched his great-great grandfather and thrown his body into a lake.

"This event led me to examine how tragic events may stimulate collective action in black communities," Harris said.

Collective memories can inspire activism or cause fear and suppress mobilization. Till's case inspired collective action and, said Harris, probably had a more rousing impact on black mobilization than Brown v. Board of Education (1954) or the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which had inspired political mobilization in the north. A 1966 opinion survey revealed fewer African-Americans in the South remembered the murder of Till than those in the North, which may have resulted from memory suppression among Southern blacks.

Today, said Harris, African-American organizations are weakened by the lack of a major cause to rally around. "We need strong political actors to mobilize the community," Harris said.

Segregation is a thing of the past; African-Americans have made progress in education, housing, and economic status and justice now prevails. Unlike in the Till case, jurors in the Byrd case, which went to trial in 1999, speedily sentenced Byrd's killer to death. Popular culture has kept the Emmett Till case in the public eye over the years, through books, music, and plays. In more recent history, the brutal images and ensuing riots from the Rodney King beating were replayed repeatedly, making it part of the public discourse.

"The political process secures memory," Harris said. "The culture sustains it."

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