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How to Build a Movement - Featured: Clay Carson, Estelle Freedman, Allyson Hobbs and Pamela Karlan

Growing up in the predominantly white town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, Clayborne Carson learned about the civil rights movement from the news: school desegregation, lunch counter sit-ins, the Freedom Riders. But in 1963, he joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—Black rights activists who “exemplified the rebelliousness and impatience I felt as a teenager,” he writes in his memoir, Martin’s Dream: My Journey and the Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. “We admired King, but he was too cautious,” Carson said recently. “In some ways, the relationship was like this generation with respect to President Obama—admiration for him but not waiting for his guidance.” That guidance—and the resulting inflection point that would transform American race relations—came from young people engaging in civil disobedience. 

Carson, now a professor of history and the director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford, believes the youth made the protests of the 1960s and 2020 possible by turning out in record numbers. “I think that’s the main role of young people in the past two upsurges of protest,” Carson says. “The ’60s in general was certainly sparked by the students in Greensboro who sat in the lunch counter and set off a wave of sit-in protests.” But Carson sees further parallels between then and now: technological innovations that activists harness to organize, to make people see injustice and to sway public opinion, as well as disillusionment with the national story of progress and equality.


1968 saw uprisings around the world opposing racism, state violence and war. It was also the year that changed the path of Estelle Freedman, then a junior at Barnard College. As a freshman, she had optimistic liberal beliefs but was far from being a radical. “Then I came into contact, in sociology and history and political science—as well as on the streets and in the antiwar movement and in the student movement—with the realization that things are not as you were led to believe and that the government was not so forthcoming about what was happening in the war,” says Freedman, now a professor of history at Stanford. “All of that really came to a head for me in the spring of 1968 during the student protests and strike at Columbia.”

She joined the protests, which accused the university of racism and complicity in the Vietnam War, on the day Columbia called in the police to remove students who had occupied campus spaces. “I was not somebody who would occupy a building,” Freedman recalls. “But I definitely was someone who did not believe that the police were the legitimate resort for resolving an on-campus problem. And one night there was a moment of truth for me. Do you stay and put yourself between the police and the protesters, or do you go back to the safety of your dorm?” She chose to stay, saw the violence against protesters and escaped arrest chased by mounted police. “That changed my worldview. Where do you go from here? Things are never going to be the same again,” she says. “All of this, perhaps ironically, set me on a certain path toward my career. ‘We’re going to build a different kind of university. This has got to change,’ I thought. And it really sent me back into history to understand social movements.”


Hobbs like Carson, Allyson , director of Stanford’s African and African American studies program, emphasizes the length of the civil rights movement and the importance of understanding activism dating back to the Civil War, if not earlier. There were constant efforts to defend Black communities against white brutality, as in summer 1919, after the First World War. “A number of Black soldiers were lynched in their military uniform,” she says. “These Black soldiers were coming back, and they’re thinking, ‘We fought for this country. We were going to give our lives for this country. We can’t come back and nothing’s changed.’˜”

To understand the struggle for human rights and dignity, she emphasizes, requires engaging with complexity, with concepts like intersectionality—a term introduced by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 that refers to the ways in which an individual’s social and political identities, such as race, gender, class, sexuality, appearance and ability, combine in distinct expressions of privilege and discrimination.


Though each of these social movements has a distinct history and set of challenges, they have shared many tools. In recent years, all have relied on the internet and social media, though in the case of Black Lives Matter, the capacity of smartphones to make and share high-resolution videos of police violence has been crucial. Similarly, for LGBTQ people, the internet has been vital, revealing the brutality they face but also providing a new means of building community.

Highlighting how much has changed for LGBTQ rights is the 2020 Supreme Court case prohibiting employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender. The decision referred to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits workplace discrimination on account of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Nearly 60 years later, in Bostock v. Clayton County, Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan argued that the plaintiff’s firing due to sexual orientation constituted discrimination on the basis of sex. The court agreed, 6–3.




Illustration: Joan Wong; Photos, clockwise from top left: AP Photo; Getty Images; Fibonacci Blue/Creative Commons; Carlos Rene Perez/AP; Stanley Wolfson/Library of Congress; AP Photo