Tensions, Ironies, and Social Justice in Black Civil Rights: Lessons from Brown and King
When studying history, ideally we come to the conclusion that it is not random, nor is it a result of mishaps. History is a decision that we make with our lives, and by gaining a richer understanding of it, we become more aware of how individual choices impact the lives of others. Moreover, history informs us of the deep-seated structural inequities persistent in our society and the ways in which we can continue challenging them based upon past struggles. In his book Living Black History (2006), Manning Marable writes:
Knowledgeable civic actors can draw important lessons from history, which does incrementally increase civic capacity. Historical amnesia blocks the construction of potentially successful social movements. As the gap between the past, present, and future diminishes, individuals can acquire a greater sense of becoming the “makers” of their own history. Thus, for the oppressed, the act of reconstructing history is inextricably linked to the political practices, or praxis, of transforming the present and future. (p. 37)
Noting Marble’s commentary, historians, sociologists, and legal scholars have all drawn and extensively documented lessons from Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954/1955) and the Civil Rights movement (1955-1968)—lessons that can surely advance civic capacity and, if heeded, assist present-future social movements in avoiding historical amnesia. The following discussion, however, is not a comprehensive historical review of these milestones. Rather, I choose to refl ect on these events, using political-historical research, with the hope of expanding the discourse that seeks to deepen our senses of history and increase our capacity for civic action. Thus, for the sake of organization, I will present a synopsis of some of the social tensions catalyzed by these events. I will then discuss signifi cant ironies that emerge out of each. Finally, I will close with some brief thoughts on the meaning of these tensions and ironies within the conceptual framework of social justice education, specifi cally underscoring the individual’s role in initiating personal and institutional change through the practice of social perspective-taking.