Privilege and Social Change

I’ve been reading Doug McAdam’s seminal book Freedom Summer. I’m a little less than halfway through it, but already it’s been a compelling read.

McAdam had initially set out to study the network of activists engaged in the major struggles of the 60s. He knew anecdotally that many of the white leaders known for organizing against the war or for women’s liberation had their roots in the civil rights movement, but the Standford sociologist wanted to understand this connection more systematically.

He had hoped to find a list of the white Northerners who had traveled to Mississippi in 1964 to register black voters for the Freedom Summer project. From this list, he would be able to identify which participants went on to lead other social movements and explore what had compelled this further action.

But he didn’t find a list of participants.

He found something better.

At the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Atlanta, while sifting through miscellaneous materials on the Summer Project, McAdam stumbled across something remarkable: “there, nicely organized and cataloged, were the original five page applications filled out by the volunteers in advance of the summer.”

That trove included applications of those who were rejected, those who were accepted but who never-showed up, and applications of those who ultimately spent their summer in Mississippi.

He spent the next six years comparing at the characteristics of the volunteers and no-shows, exploring the experience of the summer, and examining the impact of that summer experience.

I haven’t gotten to the longitudinal part of his work yet, but I’ve been very struck by his description of the volunteers going into the summer.

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the primary organizer of the summer made some intentional choices about recruitment. They reached out heavily to students at ivy-league and prestigious universities. They looked for volunteers who could pay their own way and support themselves for the summer.

The sensibilities of the time may have been shifting, but the attitudes of the volunteers were distinctive. As McAdam writes:

Academically, they numbered among “the best and the brightest” of their generation, both in the levels of education they had obtained and the prestige of the colleges and universities they were attending. Reflecting on their privileged class backgrounds as much as the prevailing mood of the era, the volunteers held to an enormously idealistic and optimistic view of the world. More importantly, perhaps, they shared a sense of efficacy about their own actions. The arrogance of youth and the privileges of class combined with the mood of the era to give the volunteers an inflated sense of their own specialness and generational potency.

I was struck by how much this description fits the often stereotypical view of Millennials. They are optimists who think change is possible. They are self-important and think they are special.

In the Freedom Summer volunteers, these elements combined for a remarkable effect: young people who thoroughly believed they were special enough to undo centuries of racism.

And perhaps the remarkable thing is that they were not wrong.

Well, not entirely wrong. There is plenty more work to do, plenty of racism still thriving in this country, but while we still have far to go – I think the Freedom Summer volunteers did accomplish something.

We could argue about just how much affect they had, but on the whole, I would say, they bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.

Perhaps today’s young people could be just as remarkable.

But there’s something deeply unsettling and ironic about the impact of Freedom Summer.

The SNCC leaders knew it all along:

Nobody cared when they fished black bodies out of the river. But when America’s white sons and daughters were at risk, America paid attention.

The summer served to gain some ground in the civil rights movement, but it also served to reinforce the deep, systemic injustices of our country.

A summer of action from naïve whites affected more change than decades of black leadership.

The summer proved what SNCC leaders knew all too well: blacks in Mississippi really were powerless and these young, elite Northerners had good cause to be confident in their own efficacy.

Yes, it was black leaders who planned, designed and implemented Freedom Summer. It was black leaders who taught organizing and trained volunteers in effecting change. It was black leaders who put themselves most at risk.

But ultimately, it was the whiteness of the young volunteers that made the biggest impact.

I can’t imagine the dilemma the SNCC leaders were in. They knew what they were getting into going into the summer – they had some great debates about whether recruiting white northerners was the best strategy. But ultimately, they decided, attracting the privileged youth of white America was the best move they could make.

And those young people brought plenty of paternalism with them. As McAdam describes, “for their part, a good many of the volunteers brought a kind of “missionary” attitude to the project that only aggravated existing tensions. Hints of paternalism and insensitivity show up with great frequency in the volunteer’s letters and journals.”

Perhaps this could not be avoided. The volunteers were shaped by a racialized America as well.

In another comment that rings true of today McAdam says the volunteers “were not to much color-blind as supremely desirous of appearing color-blind.”

With the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer taking place last year, there’s been lots of talk – do we need another Freedom Summer?

Clearly, we need to do something. Black men and women are killed every day. Many live lives markedly different from their white peers. The racism and injustice that’s been rampant in this country is at the fore of our national consciousness, and for the first time in a long while it feels like something could change for the better.

And we should all fight for that change.

But invoking Freedom Summer we should be mindful.

Is the civil rights movement of today one where young, privileged, white people will continue to take their place as the face of a moment? Where those heirs to to power will deign to use their power for good – rather than disrupt those systems of power altogether?

It’s too early to say.

One of the most exciting things about Black Lives Matter has been the emergence of young, black leaders. It’s not their job to fight alone, but it is their place to lead.

For those of us in white America, the legacy of Freedom Summer should be an important reminder: change can happen, but for change to last – for systemic change to occur – it is not enough for us to use our privileged to shape our world. We must check our privilege and support the impressive black leaders among us.

They are the true face of change.


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