2.10. The Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement

We all deserve human rights, dignity, and respect. We all deserve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The idyllic image of the United States in the years following World War II is a bit of a sham.

Yes, it really was the biggest economic boom in modern history. But that good fortune wasn’t at all equally distributed.

It was a good time for white men, who could buy a house and send their kids to college on a middle- and working-class paycheck.

But it wasn’t a good time for women, who were treated like objects and compelled to be suburban housewives.

It wasn’t a good time for people of color, who’d fought bravely during the war, but still couldn’t sit wherever they wanted on the bus.

And it certainly wasn’t a good time for LGBTQ folks, who were still closeted and seen as dangerous, predatory, sexual deviants.

The civil rights movements of the 1960s are usually seen as a radical break from the time before. But it’s hard to imagine the horrors of the Holocaust didn’t play a role.

What the Nazis did was the logical consequence of declaring an entire group of people to be inherently subhuman and inferior. And that kind of convenient, cruel, dehumanizing mental shortcut was—and is—hardly confined to them, or the German people.

That shortcut was the whole justification for slavery and colonialism. For segregation and treating women like property. For not letting people love each other in their own way. And Hitler showed the world where that mental fallacy leads.

So in that sense, the ‘60s civil rights movements weren’t a radical break. They were a culmination. They were the result of learning the right lesson from the war, internalizing it, and actively doing something to ensure it didn’t happen again.

They were the result of the people in the countries that had beaten the Nazis realizing that they still had work to do to make their countries worthy of the stand they had taken for human rights, against prejudice and discrimination.

That work clearly isn’t over. Most of the progress has been fiercely resisted. And in housing, employment, education, the criminal justice system, hate crimes and domestic abuse, and countless micro- and macro- aggressions during the course of their everyday lives—women, people of color, and LGBTQ folks are still very much marginalized.

Yes, plenty of straight and/or white and/or men are suffering. And that matters too.

It’s ridiculous that our political system is set up so that you’re only allowed to care about one set of people’s suffering. That you have to think one set of people is selfish and entitled, so you can justify taking stuff from them and giving it to the other, “more deserving” groups.

We are the American people. All of us.

We all deserve human rights, dignity, and respect. We all deserve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Anyone who tells you some group of people isn’t as deserving of those things is indulging in the same convenient, cruel shortcut responsible for the horrors of the past.

It’s a lot harder to cultivate prosperity and well-being for everyone than one small group of privileged people. That’s probably why some people want to pretend it can’t be done.

But I don’t think it’s an excuse to deny those things to marginalized groups. I think it’s an opportunity to rise to the challenge. I think it’s an opportunity to make ourselves worthy of the stand our ancestors took in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s.


This is the 38th in a series of over 150 videos about how to create real, lasting social change. Click here for a list of all titles, videos, and transcripts.

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