Found 31,247 Resources containing: Activism
Curator Dr. Katherine Ott invited students in Dr. Samuel J. Redman's Museum/Historic Site Interpretation Seminar to explore the museum's collections and write blog posts sharing their research. Read more posts by the students.
In 1945, Jack Fisher of Kalamazoo, Michigan, celebrated a victory, one of the first of its kind in the United States. Jack, a disabled veteran and lawyer, was elated because his hometown had just installed the nation's first curb cuts to facilitate travel in the downtown area for wheelchair users and others who couldn't navigate the 6-inch curb heights on downtown sidewalks.
Today, this seems like an odd thing to rejoice about, since curb cuts are now so commonplace in cities throughout the U.S. However, sidewalks and public spaces in the built environment were not always so accessible to people with disabilities. The development of curb cuts and the concept of accessible public spaces has been long in the making and has only become possible through the hard work of activists like Mr. Fisher, the passage of federal legislation on accessibility requirements, and developments in design.
Wheelchair-using individuals have navigated obstacles in the built environment since the first wheelchairs. In the 1940s and 1950s, a large contingency of veterans returned from World War II with mobility-related injuries. Many of these individuals pushed for changes to the built environment to make college campuses and public spaces more accessible to wheelchair users and other disabled people. On the University of Illinois campus, disabled veterans got around campus any way they could, sometimes hitching rides on service trucks since sidewalks did not have accessible ramps for them to move from building to building.
Disability activism was not confined to veterans' groups; others protested for accessible spaces in urban areas by physically taking to the streets and smashing curbs to create their own accessible ramps. In the 1970s, Hale Zukas and other founders of the Independent Living Movement in Berkeley, California, organized to establish a wheelchair route through the University of California campus and the town of Berkeley. They even built curb ramps themselves, covertly laying asphalt in the middle of the night to create their own wheelchair accessible infrastructure.
Eric Dibner, a member of the Independent Living Movement, joked during an oral history interview, "Well, you didn't hear about the nitroglycerin where we were blowing up curbs and... jackhammers in the middle of the night, where we'd go and we'd jackhammer up all these intersections, and then the city would have to fix them." Of course this story was exaggerated, but having to come up with their own solutions for overcoming architectural barriers was an everyday reality for these activists.
While these activists were taking their own measures to ensure the world they lived in was accessible to them, federal legislation increasingly recognized rights for disabled Americans. In 1968, the Architectural Barriers Act was passed in Congress, which required that federally funded facilities remove obstacles in the built environment. While limited in scope, this breakthrough in legislation reflected the work of disability activists and laid the groundwork for the 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA prohibits discrimination and provides for equal opportunities for people with disabilities, laying out accessibility standards for buildings and public spaces throughout the U.S.
The design world also responded. Ronald Mace, an architect and designer at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, along with other architects, developed a set of design principles known as Universal Design. While Universal Design principles are typically applied to building interiors, these design concepts are also used to enhance outdoor physical space and make sidewalks, streets, and other public spaces easily navigable for everyone.
Disability activists have refused to accept the status quo. Since the mid-20th century, they have persisted and influenced public policy, resulting in legislation that made discrimination against those with disabilities illegal. Today, through processes like Universal Design, we continue to see a shift in society's mindset toward individuals with disabilities. Designers are approaching the built environment with ever-more innovative solutions to urban architectural obstacles facing disabled people.
Julie Peterson is a master's student in the Public History program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She studies 20th century U.S. urban history, social justice and mass incarceration, and museum interpretation and public programming.
“The distance, watching you in its black cloak, will not have the strength to separate us. . .” These wistful words, written in Spanish, appear in a 1927 poem entitled “La ausencia,” or “The Absence.” The author, Blanca Rosa López Rodríguez, was a 20-year-old news reporter in Mexico City, who had left her rigidly patriarchal Guatemalan homeland in search of a way to impact the world around her in her own right. Within three years, she would change her name to Luisa Moreno, cementing for the rest of her life la distancia between her and her disapproving family back home.
Rodríguez moved from Mexico City to New York City in 1928, seeking a fresh start in the so-called land of the free. What she found upon joining the labor force at a bleak industrial garment factory was that the United States had a long way to go before it could rightfully claim that title. Wages were paltry, hours were long and discrimination against nonwhites ran rampant. As the Great Depression took hold in 1930, Rodríguez rechristened herself and joined the roster of the Communist Party. Dedicated to workplace reform and women's rights, the Party, whose name would be irrevocably tarnished amid the paranoia of the Cold War, was at the time a perfect fit for an up-and-coming workers' rights champion. A woman on a mission, “Luisa Moreno” rose to become one of the most prominent and impactful labor activists in the nation.
Moreno’s story is the focus of a new installation at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, a display case with interactive touchscreen panels that was added to the “American Enterprise” exhibition last week. The exhibition, which opened in 2015, unpacks the growth of industry in the U.S. since the country’s foundation. Yet behind the history of every business is the history of its workers, and curator Mireya Loza, who oversaw the installation of the new Luisa Moreno display, believes passionately that labor leaders in Moreno’s mold deserve inclusion.
“I think Moreno’s life story is a wonderful story—this is squarely American history of union organizing and civil rights,” Loza says. “In an exhibition on American enterprise, I thought it would be fantastic to think about workers. And she represented the interests of workers.”Agricultural workers in the Depression Era exerted themselves all day long for meager wages. Immigrants had it especially hard, and Luisa Moreno sought to secure them the respect they deserved. (OSU Special Collections, Wikimedia Commons)
Having participated in several strikes at the garment plant, Moreno quit to become a full-time advocate for immigrant laborers everywhere, signing on with the American Federation of Labor as an organizer in 1935. Traveling south to Florida, she rallied underpaid workers in the state’s sun-beaten tobacco fields. This was just the beginning.
Moreno soon pivoted to the Unified Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA), a group closely affiliated with John L. Lewis’s Congress of Industrial Organizations (the AFL and CIO would not merge until 1955). Moreno became both the first woman and first person of Latin descent appointed to the CIO council, and in the early 1940s journeyed westward to help Californian food processing employees coalesce into unions.
“I think the biggest splash she made in terms of long-term impact was probably in Southern California,” Loza says, “not because she didn’t do fantastic work in other places, but because there she actually starts to create the Spanish-Speaking People’s Congress, which was a nice dovetail between her labor activism and civil rights work.” El Congreso de Pueblos de Hablan Española, as it was known in Spanish, was born at Moreno’s urging in 1938, and went on to become a vital outlet for Mexican-American voices, who used the organization efficaciously to lobby for protective legislation and reforms in housing and education.
Loza recounts Moreno’s run-in with contemporary labor leader Emma Tenayuca, a Mexican-American cut from the same cloth. On her way west, Moreno made a noteworthy stop in Texas. Having learned of Tenayuca’s efforts to protect migrant pecan sellers, Moreno lent a hand with activism in San Antonio.Many supported Luisa Moreno when she came under federal fire for her Communist leanings (above, a pamphlet produced by her advocates), but their protests were to no avail. Moreno saw no option but to flee the country with her daughter and husband. (NMAH)
“Tenayuca is a homegrown Tejana,” says Loza, who herself called the Lone Star State home for a time, “and you have Luisa Moreno, a figure from Guatemala, and Moreno assists Emma Tenayuca in her labor activism. And you have this moment where there’s two dynamic women leading this labor movement who collide in San Antonio, Texas.” Loza’s wide smile and rapid speech make her own admiration for these heroines readily apparent. “I just wish I could be a fly on the wall at that moment,” she says.
Moreno’s commitment to immigrant laborers endured across World War II. But in the postbellum “red scare” that marked the onset of America’s Cold War with the Soviet Union, Moreno’s workers’ rights campaign was tragically truncated. Increasingly unsympathetic toward activist immigrants, the federal government in 1950 concocted a warrant for Moreno’s immediate deportation, citing her association with the Communist Party as a threat to national security.
Rather than subject herself to the humiliation of forced removal, Moreno left the U.S. that November, returning to Mexico with her daughter Mytyl and her second husband, Nebraskan Navy man Gary Bemis. In time, the family made their way back to Moreno’s point of origin, Guatemala. When her spouse died in 1960, Moreno relocated temporarily to Castro’s Cuba. But it was Guatemala where the fiery labor leader passed away in November of 1994, the distancia between her and her birthplace finally erased.
“Often, when I think about her departure,” Loza says of Moreno’s expulsion from the U.S., “I think about all the talent and expertise, and all of that dynamic vision, that left with her.”
Moreno paved the way for the United Farm Workers, but is today nowhere near as well-known as those she inspired. “Oftentimes, we attribute Dolores Huerta and César Chávez as the beginning of labor activism and civil rights work,” Loza says, “but in fact, there are a lot of folks like Luisa Moreno” who made their successes possible. Moreno is an especially powerful example, Loza adds, in that she, unlike Huerta and Chávez, was not a U.S. citizen.The newly unveiled Luisa Moreno display at the American History Museum includes a book of her poetry and the shawl she wore in the last years of her life. (NMAH)
American Enterprise’s new display contains intimate mementos of Moreno’s life, artifacts donated to the Smithsonian by the labor activism historian Vicki Ruiz, who had herself received them as gifts from Moreno’s daughter, Mytyl. The display includes the book of poetry Moreno published in 1927, back when she was still Blanca Rosa López Rodríguez. It also features a widely distributed pamphlet railing against the prospect of her deportation, and an elegant white shawl that Moreno wore about her neck in the last years of her life.
Loza is looking forward to sharing these treasures with the American public, and in particular those of Central American heritage. “Moreno’s story shows us that the Latino civil rights story is not only a Mexican story, but that Central Americans also played a role,” Loza says. “And the aspect that she’s a woman, a woman from a different country, really makes me hope that the Central American community can see how they contributed to Latino civil rights.”
One day in the late 1980s, a homeless man in a red cap walked through a park in New York City, pushing a strange, wheeled object. The thing looked like a cross between a shopping cart and a rocket ship, with an arc of safety-orange fabric stretched over the top. The man paused to pick up a discarded beer can and tossed it in the cart’s basket.
A camera followed him, and a small crowd gathered as the man parked the vehicle and began to demonstrate its functions. He tugged on one end, and the object expanded to three times its original length. He pulled at another spot, and a retractable seat slid out. “It’s like a mobile home,” he said. The cart had a storage area for personal belongings, a washbasin that doubled as support for a table, a bin to hold cans and bottles, and, beneath its orange roof, just enough space for a desperate homeless man to sleep.
The cart’s creator, Krzysztof Wodiczko, was not on camera that day. He is a Polish-born artist who in the late 1980s began making several of these houses-on-wheels, which he called Homeless Vehicles. One of them, Homeless Vehicle, Variant 5, from 1988-1989, is now among the collections of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
Wodiczko, who had begun his career as an industrial designer, spent hours consulting with homeless people who collected bottles and cans for a living, asking about their needs and seeking feedback on his designs. By presenting an idea of emergency housing both elegant and disturbing, he hoped to raise awareness of the homeless and their concerns. The Homeless Vehicles helped launch a renewed interest in social activism among artists, an interest that can be seen today in forms that range from the neighborhood development projects of Rick Lowe to Yoko Ono’s Twitter feed. “The question is,” Wodiczko said in a recent interview, “What can we do as artists to be useful in our work?”
Born in Warsaw in 1943, Wodiczko lived in Communist Poland until moving to Canada in the 1970s and later to the U.S. Arriving in New York in the 1980s, the artist was shocked by a “catastrophic situation”: tens of thousands of people living without homes in that wealthy city. The can and bottle collectors stood out, pushing shopping carts wherever they went. Though they were dismissed by the public “much as every other homeless person, faceless, seemingly using stolen consumer equipment,” he says, he saw them as working people doing tough jobs that benefited the city, day and night, for very little money in return. In the Homeless Vehicles, he tried to “create a legitimate vehicle for collecting bottles and cans, so these people will be recognized as legitimate members of the urban community.”
It one sense Homeless Vehicle is exquisitely functional, almost charming in the way it squeezes so many useful features into one neat, rolling package. Artists have created functional objects forever, usually for the wealthiest stratum of society, whether ancient Chinese incense burners or opulent Art Deco doors. Some artists, in the Bauhaus of the 1920s, for example, designed mass-produced goods for a broader public. But it was something new, says Stéphane Aquin, chief curator of the Hirshhorn, for an artist to create a beautifully functional tool for the poorest of the poor. “It was designed for the use of those who need it the most,” he says.
Looked at another way, though, Homeless Vehicle isn’t functional at all. As either a real home or a long-term solution to the shortage of affordable housing, it’s absurdly, even horribly, inadequate. Wodiczko says he didn’t intend for the vehicles to be mass-produced, and he didn‘t give away even the few that were made (partly because he feared they would be so desirable that people would get hurt fighting over them).
Instead, Homeless Vehicle can be understood as a critique of economic inequality. Among the places where one of the artworks was photographed was in front of Trump Tower. Aquin sees the absurdity of the vehicle as Wodiczko’s metaphor for “the absurdity…of the extreme capitalist society of the late 1980s: the trickle-down economics of the Reagan years, the rise of Trump Tower, a dramatic rise in homelessness in New York City.” Even with all its homey amenities, Homeless Vehicle looks a lot like a missile. One of its intended functions was as a weapon of social disruption.Homeless Vehicle in New York City by Krzysztof Wodiczko, 1988-1989 (Hirshhorn © Krzysztof Wodiczko; Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York)
They may not have known it, but the people in the park gawking at it were part of the artwork, too. Wodiczko says that the vehicles were addressing two different emergencies: a need to make homeless people’s existence a little less harsh, and an equally urgent need to give this mostly ignored group of people a chance to be heard, to “speak of their lives to nonhomeless people.” In this sense, he says, the can and bottle collectors who worked with him turned out to be performers. As they wheeled his strange vehicles around the city, they attracted questions from passersby, which led sometimes to friendly conversations between homeless people and their neighbors or, sometimes, to outrage (“We can’t have 100,000 vehicles like this!”). Either way, the discussion was part of the point. It was, Wodiczko says, “on one hand, emergency help; on the other hand, a situation for thinking.”
Looking back on it as a piece of art history, Aquin says that Homeless Vehicle “raised awareness in the art world about social issues” and about the ways artists could apply their creativity to solving social problems.
If Wodiczko’s social activism was unusual among artists in the 1980s, in the decades since it has rippled into many parts of the art world. Nato Thompson, artistic director of the cultural organization Philadelphia Contemporary and author of Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Twenty-First Century, has seen a significant rise in what he calls “socially engaged art” in the last decade or so, of “artists interested in using their skills to better their communities.“ He adds, “Even the conversation of community as a part of art has grown tremendously. It’s not only artists, but there are more institutions supporting it, and more foundations.”Wodiczko’s work has continued to give marginalized people—from immigrants to abused women to military veterans—a platform to speak publicly, now often in large-scale audio and video projections. (Ewa Harabasz)
Activism has influenced a range of art made since the Homeless Vehicles’ era. Aquin sees their humor and absurdism as an older sibling of “ludicrously satirical” work like the Yes Men’s Survivaball from the early 2000s, a bloblike suit supposed to protect the wearer from climate change. Wodiczko’s own work has continued to give marginalized people—from immigrants to abused women to military veterans—a platform to speak publicly, now often in large-scale audio and video projections. (His 1988 projection Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C. was recently restaged at the museum.) Meanwhile, as Thompson points out, other artists have gone on to address problems of homelessness and affordable housing, such as Michael Rakowitz with paraSITE, a series of inflatable plastic shelters, or Rick Lowe and Project Row Houses, an artists’ urban renewal project in Houston.
The Danish artists’ group Superflex has focused on functional art addressing social issues, from a series of projects with biofuels in the 1990s to a recent work exhibiting and then donating medical equipment for a hospital in Syria. Mark Beasley, curator of media and performance art at the Hirshhorn, says the group continually grapples with the question of “how you create an active space for discussion”—in much the same way that Wodiczko hoped to provoke that discussion in a public park.
Thirty years after Homeless Vehicle, the Internet and social media have become natural places for public discussion. “Artists are very adept and very promiscuous in taking to new media,” Beasley says, as “another platform for discussion or dispersion of ideas.”
An 18th-century artist might have used history painting to comment on events, he says, but “rather than 10 people clustered around a painting,” an artist on social media can reach millions in a matter of seconds. “Artists are engaging in that in the same way that any corporate brand is engaging in that.” Beasley says that since much of Yoko Ono’s work is text-based, for example, it is a natural fit for social media. Jenny Holzer’s aphorisms, he says, are a form of discussion, whether they’re projected onto the side of a building or posted on Twitter.
The discussion continues. Thompson says he hasn’t seen a dramatic change in artists’ work since the election of Donald Trump as president, but it may be coming. “The arts take a while to recalibrate themselves,” he says. “The shift to dealing with the new political atmosphere I don’t think has happened yet.” At the moment, he says “we don’t have a large protest movement going on in serial way,” with regularly repeated protests like those around the Vietnam War, AIDS or civil rights, which often galvanized political art in the past.
For now, Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicles tell us something about what art can accomplish, and what it can’t. Innovative as they were, the vehicles didn’t shift public opinion enough to replace homes-on-wheels with real housing for those in need. More than half a million people were homeless in the U.S. on a single night last year. And so Homeless Vehicle, Variant 5 serves to remind us, Aquin says, “that solutions still need to be found.”
Homeless Vehicle, Variant 5 is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden as part of the exhibition “Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s” through May 13.
As demonstrators all over the country, many of them youth, began to protest after the recent election and its vitriolic and acrimonious tenor, others have questioned the value, the strategy and the timing of these protests. The time for activism, critics say, was before November 8. Ridiculing these protests as valueless today echoes what happened 50 years ago during the Civil Rights Movement.
The history of American political activism and involvement beyond the ballot certainly offers a template and lessons for such activism today and into the future. It sheds light on the concern that such actions by students across the country were ill-timed and ineffective—too little, too late.
“What we’ve witnessed in recent years is the popularization of street marches without a plan for what happens next and how to keep protesters engaged and integrated in the political process,” wrote the scholar and columnist Moisés Naím in his 2014 article for The Atlantic, “Why Street Protests Don’t Work.” Besides his references to social media, Naím's comments could have been written in the 1950s or '60s. “It’s just the latest manifestation of the dangerous illusion that it is possible to have democracy without political parties,” he wrote, “and that street protests based more on social media than sustained political organizing is the way to change society.”
Activists like Stokely Carmichael thought some of the most famous and iconic Civil Rights Movement events were a waste of time. He referred to the March on Washington as a worthless “picnic” and felt the only value of the celebrated Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March was the grassroots organization he was able to do along the 54-mile journey down Alabama’s Route 80.
The history of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s suggests this concern to be right and wrong at the same time. Marches were a common method of protest during this era. Sometimes marches were part of a larger plan, while other marches grew organically and spontaneously.
Neither, however, was a guarantee of success or failure. Four years before he meticulously planned the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, organizer Bayard Rustin planned a different march down Pennsylvania Avenue called the Youth March for Integrated Schools. It was held on April 18, 1959 and brought together more than 25,000 participants, including such celebrities as Harry Belafonte, who would join the crowds on the Mall four years later.Police dogs attack protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963 (© Charles Moore Credit Line: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture)
The march was intended to expose the fact that five years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court, schools across the country were still segregated. Belafonte, in fact, led a delegation of student leaders to the White House to meet with President Eisenhower, but they were unceremoniously turned away as the administration had little interest in doing anything to enforce the Court’s ruling.
Impulsive protests sometimes had lasting effects. Following the spontaneous sit-in at the Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth store in February, students in Nashville, who had been taking classes run by Vanderbilt divinity student James Lawson in Ghandian nonviolent direct action tactics, leapt into action, launching a similar sit-campaign of their own. Those students included people whose names would become synonymous with the nonviolent Freedom Movement such as Marion Barry, James Bevel, Bernard Lafayette, John Lewis, Diane Nash and C.T. Vivian. After several months, however, they had seen few victories and no change in the law. Then, in response to the vicious bombing of the home of Nashville civil rights attorney Z. Alexander Looby on April 19, 1960 (though no one was injured), their resolve and impatience turned into extemporaneous action.
“The march on April 19 was the first big march of the movement,” organizer C. T. Vivian remembered on the PBS series “Eyes on the Prize.”
“It was what, in many ways, we'd been leading to without knowing it. We began at Tennessee A&I [college] at the city limits. Right after the lunch hour, people began to gather, and we began to march down Jefferson, the main street of black Nashville. When we got to 18th and Jefferson, Fisk University students joined us. They were waiting and they fell right in behind. The next block was 17th and Jefferson, and students from Pearl High School joined in behind that. People came out of their houses to join us and then cars began joining us, moving very slowly so they could be with us. We filled Jefferson Avenue; it's a long, long way down Jefferson.”Students from Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring protest in November 2016. (© Chip Py)
The multitude of young people decided to head to City Hall. They hadn’t planned the march in advance and had not gotten any confirmation from Nashville Mayor Ben West that he would participate or negotiate when they got there, but they continued on.
Vivian remembered, “We walked by a place where there were workers out for the noon hour, white workers and they had never seen anything like this. Here was all of 4,000 people marching down the street, and all you could hear was our feet as we silently moved, and they didn't know what to do. They moved back up against the wall and they simply stood against the wall, just looking. There was a fear there, there was an awe there. They knew that this was not to be stopped, this was not to be played with or to be joked with. We marched on and started up the steps at City Hall, and we gathered on the plaza that was a part of City Hall itself. The mayor knew now that he would have to speak to us.”
When they got to the steps of City Hall, Mayor West came out to meet the students and took part in one of the most incredible, yet generally unknown moments of the movement.
Fisk University Diane Nash, with her uncommon eloquence and staggering conviction, confronted the mayor of a Southern city with cameras rolling. “I asked the mayor . . . ‘Mayor West, do you feel that's wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of his race or color?’”
West said he was so moved by Nash’s sincerity and passion and felt he had to answer as a man and not as a politician. West admitted he felt segregation was morally wrong, and the next day the headline of the Nashville Tennessean read, "Mayor Says Integrate Counters." Four years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made segregation illegal, the impromptu student march spurred Nashville to become the first Southern city to begin desegregating its public facilities.
The African American History Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has for more than 30 years worked to document and present the Freedom Movement in all its complexity from the experience of those at the grassroots up to the leaders who are household names. Part of that involves understanding how multifaceted and multifarious the movement was.
Many things were happening all at once—connecting, conflicting, building, diverting from one another all at the same time. When we look, we remember back at all of the Movement’s pieces and moments as leading to the ultimate legal victories of the Johnson administration legislation of 1964 and 1965.
So we always think of the various efforts as part of an overall plan, partly because we remember the Movement as the manifestation of the vision of the few leaders whose names we know. The history was much more complex, however.
When we remember the mid-20th century Civil Rights protests and compare it to today, we often think there was a grand plan in the past where that is absent today. But the truth is there wasn’t one, there were many and they were often competitive.
Lawyers filing and arguing lawsuits for the NAACP legal defense team, whose work was critical to many of the protests we now credit to Martin Luther King and others, were displeased that their efforts were uncelebrated by history.
NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins once said to King about the 1955 bus boycott that propelled him into the movement, “Martin, some bright reporter is going to take a good look at Montgomery and discover that despite all the hoopla, your boycott didn’t desegregate a single bus. It was the quiet NAACP-type legal action that did it.”
Although legal action did lead to the Supreme Court decision that desegregated buses in Montgomery, even a ruling by the Court wasn’t always enough to ensure great social change. Though the Court ruled in the Brown decision that school segregation was inherently unequal and unconstitutional, many Southern states simply ignored the ruling since there was no enforcement mandate given. Other states closed down their public schools entirely, opting to have no public education rather than integrate students.
The Civil Rights Movement shows us that protest isn’t effective in a vacuum and one type of activism is rarely effective all by itself. In 1995, for the 35th anniversary of the Greensboro Woolworth’s sit-in that took place on February 1, 1960, the Smithsonian presented a program called “Birthplace of a Whirlwind.”
It argued that the unplanned sit-in orchestrated by four college freshmen, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, Ezell Blair, and David Richmond, began a tempest that spun out of control, powered by complementary forces the four freshmen didn’t know where there, stirring the imagination of previously unmotivated actors, and taking the movement in directions no one had anticipated. That the protests were not planned was important.
Like Rosa Parks's defiance and many other such acts, it captured people’s dreams. At the same time, just like today, most people thought it folly. How could a few kids sitting down and ordering lunch accomplish anything?
In 2008, we began a program at the National Museum of American History in front of the original Greensboro lunch counter. It was in essence a training program asking visitors to step back in time and put themselves into the sit-in movement and ask themselves whether they would have participated. Now that this protest has become a mythic part of American history, accepted as one of our ideals, most people assume they would.
Through our theater program, we tried to put some of the risk and uncertainty back in the history. We asked visitors to consider whether they would put their bodies on the line doing something that nearly everyone, even those who agreed that segregation was wrong, would say was damaging to the cause and doomed to fail.
People who go first take a great risk. They might get beaten, killed, ignored, ridiculed or defamed. But our history has shown us that they might also spark something. People like the Greensboro Four and the Nashville students sparked something.
As historian Howard Zinn wrote in 1964, “What had been an orderly, inch-by-inch advance via the legal processes now became a revolution in which unarmed regiments marched from one objective to another with bewildering speed.”
It took that whirlwind, but also the slow legal march. It took boycotts, petitions, news coverage, civil disobedience, marches, lawsuits, shrewd political maneuvering, fundraising, and even the violent terror campaign of the movement’s opponents—all going on in the same time.
Whether well-planned, strategic actions or emotional and impromptu protests, it took the willingness of activists in support of the American ideals of freedom and equality. As Bayard Rustin often said, “the only weapon we have is our bodies and we need to tuck them into places so wheels don’t turn.”