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.
More than half a century after the 1960s, the United States may be entering another inflection point, with millions protesting for racial justice and women’s rights, and a historic Supreme Court decision protecting LGBTQ workplace rights. Minneapolis’s city council voted in favor of dismantling its police department, Confederate monuments have come down, Mississippi redesigned its state flag, and New York City’s mayor pledged to redirect some police funding to youth and social services. But though social change can appear sudden and incendiary, as if a threshold had been crossed, it requires decades of activism. Movements do their work not only in the streets and in the media but also in the government and in the judiciary. New laws promise change that often comes much later, following horrifying moments when millions of Americans experience a shock to the conscience—such as the eight minutes of suffocation as a police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck—and realize the promise was never fulfilled. In the long civil rights movement, organizations build on one another, and battles for justice can appear hauntingly similar decades apart, revealing how slow the change has been.
To understand the 2020 protests, one needs to look at the life experience of young Americans, Carson explains. “It’s hard to put myself in the mind of a 20-year-old who has experienced both the Obama presidency and the Trump presidency,” he says. “You can’t think of two more different presidents.” Beset with cognitive dissonance, young people holding idealistic thoughts about the United States have had to contend with its struggles: over economic inequality, over health care, over access to education. Then came videos of Black men killed by police, taken on smartphones and distributed on social media, and the founding of Black Lives Matter by civil rights activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi. “It’s striking that here is a movement that, when it started just a few years back, had almost no public support,” Carson says, “and now, according to the polls, the majority of Americans think it’s positive.”
Many of the ingredients of the recent uprisings—a sense of failed promise, the indignation of the youth and the rise of new technology—were also present in the 1960s. Introduced by the Bell System in 1961, Wide Area Telephone Service—known as WATS lines—offered flat-rate long-distance calling throughout the country and allowed activists to organize and to communicate with the media. Carson, who shifted his field of study from computer programming to American history, became active in SNCC, which relied on WATS lines. He also wrote for the Los Angeles Free Press, one of the era’s most widely circulated underground newspapers—an organizing tool borrowed from World War II resistance movements.
Perhaps the most significant leap in technology was TV broadcast news, whose rise overlapped with the end of the golden age of photojournalism. Images beamed into homes on March 7, 1965—soon after known as Bloody Sunday—would transform people’s view of race in America. As 600 peaceful marchers demanded voting rights in Selma, Ala., state troopers fired tear gas, attacked with nightsticks and charged on horseback. Photos and broadcasts of injured and unconscious marchers shocked the country. “White Americans were able to see Black civil rights activists dressed in their Sunday best, as respectable as they could be, treated with such brutality,” says Allyson Hobbs, associate professor of history at Stanford. “Some white people had thought, ‘Oh, the reports aren’t really true,’ or ‘It’s not really that bad’ or ‘This is exaggerated,’ and then when they see it with their own eyes, they can’t explain it away. I think that’s what happened with George Floyd’s murder.”
Bloody Sunday also shamed the United States globally at a time when it was claiming the mantle of leader of the free world in the fight against communism. “The Cold War did a lot to advance civil rights,” Hobbs says, “because the United States could not afford to appear as a repressive, segregated, violent nation that didn’t respect the rights of Black people.”
President Lyndon Johnson responded to public outrage by introducing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting—a victory that might seem sudden to the untrained eye but that was generations in the making. Both that victory and the strategies that made it possible would energize further movements.
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.”
Freedman, who co-founded Stanford’s program in feminist, gender and sexuality studies, describes the conditions for social change as “an interplay and a delicate balance between long-term trends and more immediate historical contingency.” In the case of women’s rights, as the workplace drew in more women, they claimed more rights as citizens and workers and saw legislative and political wins. “By the mid-1960s, if you look at the data,” Freedman says, “it’s a perfect storm: More and more white women were doing what Black women had done historically, which is the double day of wage labor and household and childcare.” Alongside the demographic shift was the political context: In December 1961, President John F. Kennedy had established the President’s Commission on the Status of Women after women helped elect him. Yet working women saw few improvements. “You have long-term demographic and economic trends, political opportunity structures, rising expectations, and then contradictions—and it’s often the contradictions that become the triggers that spark these kinds of social movements,” Freedman says. “People have this hope and this belief that it’s going to work. And it doesn’t. That’s one reason people start to mobilize.”
Though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission—two victories of the civil rights movement—also prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex, women faced constant prejudice. This contradiction between promise and reality led to the creation of the National Organization for Women, which put more women in office, organized marches and lobbied for women’s rights. “Very often, I think, you get the law but then it is not making enough of a difference,” Freedman says, “and you have to go further now that it’s on the books.” Such laws legitimize protests, as with Bloody Sunday, when Black Americans demanded the right to vote promised nearly a century earlier by the 15th Amendment and protected—in theory—by the Civil Rights Act of 1957. “But how do we make the law work?” asks Freedman. “If you don’t have economic power and you don’t have political leverage, such as a national leadership that is willing to listen to you, it’s really hard to make the law effective.” Recent research by Sarah Soule, a professor of organizational behavior at the Graduate School of Business, reveals just how important working within the system can be. “To achieve goals,” she says, “three things seem to matter most: organizational strength of the movement, allies in power, and a focused and concrete ‘ask’ or demand.”
In the context of these larger efforts, social change can also be accelerated by events that powerfully move people. Women’s lack of political clout became clear in 1991, when Anita Hill testified about sexual harassment before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Women had been mobilizing against violence,” Freedman says, “and then there’s this visual on TV—all these white male senators grilling this Black woman, enacting a history of sexualized racism through their disbelief of her account. That is when a cohort of women decided to run for office to try to change that picture.” Another such event was in 2017, when sexual assault and harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein rocketed #MeToo—created more than a decade earlier by activist Tarana Burke—into public consciousness.
In addition to the work of movements, another route exists for sudden change, Freedman says: “Sometimes there’s so little hope and so much corruption and abuse of power that people blow up. That’s another revolutionary path—one we see in the contemporary political moment.”
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.
And yet, though the LGBTQ movement, like the women’s rights movement, has leveraged legislative wins made possible by Black activists, the struggle for LGBTQ rights is a case apart. Karlan tells the story of Bowers v. Hardwick, the 1986 Supreme Court decision upholding a Georgia statute making homosexual sex a felony punishable by 20 years in prison. “When the justices all went to meet after they’d heard the oral argument, where it was just the nine of them in the room, Justice Powell said that he didn’t think he’d ever met anyone who was gay,” Karlan says. “If you fast-forward to 2003, when the Supreme Court overruled the Bowers v. Hardwick case, the man who argued the case for the two gay men who’d been charged with a crime was Justice Powell’s former clerk, who was himself an openly gay man.” After the argument, Karlan was in the courtroom with another lawyer when Linda Greenhouse, the New York Times Supreme Court correspondent, joined them. “The lawyer said to Linda, ‘What did you think was the most interesting thing about the argument?’ and Linda looked at him and said, ‘The bar section of the Supreme Court.’ And what she meant was that huge numbers of former law clerks to the justices who were gay or lesbian or bisexual had come back to see the argument. And when the justices came out from behind the curtain and they looked out at that audience, there were a whole bunch of gay people who they liked and they respected and they admired and who were part of their family.” Though activists had spent decades cultivating gay pride, the coming out of LGBTQ people accelerated in the 1990s and 2000s; this and their demographic distribution were central to changing attitudes toward them, Karlan says: “Nobody wakes up one day to find out that their kid is Black or undocumented, but all sorts of conservatives woke up to find out their kids were gay.”
This shift in attitudes toward LGBTQ people has been remarkable. In 1988, only 11 percent of Americans favored same-sex marriage. Today, 68 percent do, says sociology professor Michael Rosenfeld, the department’s chair.
“U.S. public opinion was so hostile to gay rights that gay people didn’t really have a chance to come out of the closet,” he says. “The police persecuted them. The social stigma against gay people was just tremendous, so in some ways it’s the most dramatic story of social change and public opinion change that
we know of.”
Rosenfeld is a social demographer who published a 2010 paper showing no educational disadvantage for children of same-sex couples. He was called to testify in
DeBoer v. Snyder, in which a lesbian couple challenged Michigan’s ban on same-sex adoption. The case went to the Supreme Court alongside others in
Obergefell v. Hodges, resulting in the 2015 ruling that same-sex couples have the right to marry under the 14th Amendment—itself ratified in 1868 to grant formerly enslaved people citizenship rights and equal protection under the law.
“There were plenty of politicians in more conservative states in the South who argued that there wasn’t going to be marriage equality in their state,” Rosenfeld says, “but three days later there was, because there wasn’t really a basis for resisting it. It didn’t cost the state anything to provide the marriage licenses to same-sex couples.” This distinction is important: Marriage equality is a nondisplacing movement, he explains. It didn’t threaten the resources of other groups. He compares the 2015 decision with that of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which ruled against racial segregation in public schools. Resisting that was easier because it required material investment and structural changes: building schools, hiring teachers, busing students. By some accounts, American schools today are nearly as segregated as in the 1960s.
While social change has no simple formula, the concept of thresholds describes how movements can escalate. Professor of sociology Mark Granovetter defines a threshold as the point at which, once a certain number of people have joined, a particular individual will also join—for whatever reasons are specific to them. In the case of a protest turning into a riot, some individuals will join if they see only one or two others take action. “Pretty soon everyone is rioting because the zero-threshold person throws the rock through a window and that activates the person with threshold one and they join in, and then that activates the threshold two and so on, until everybody is involved,” Granovetter says.
And yet subtle variations in people’s thresholds can significantly change an outcome. Slightly increasing a single person’s threshold from two to three might prevent a protest from happening if no one else is present with threshold two. This highlights the importance of young people in movements. For many causes, young people appear more inclined to act—their threshold is often lower—and their sheer numbers may in turn trigger higher-threshold people to join their cause. Thresholds also apply to shifts in attitude, such as toward gay marriage, in a domino effect: People coming out leads to people
who are more risk-averse coming out, which in turn helps change the attitudes of more straight people. As larger numbers of straight people become accepting, the more reluctant among them follow suit.
Thresholds may also explain how movements multiply and generate support for one another, which may be why the 1960s were so explosive. The era was also a major inflection point in the rights of Mexican Americans, says associate professor of history Ana Raquel Minian. “Chicano groups could draw inspiration from the struggles of African Americans. Additionally, the prominence of the Black civil rights movement helped other social movements attain visibility and produced an atmosphere in which Americans were more ready to support people of color and minorities.” The ’60s saw a flourishing of such groups, with the Native American Red Power movement looking to Black Power activists and Chicano groups like the Young Lords and Brown Berets to the Black Panthers. King’s strategy of nonviolence, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, in turn inspired César Chávez’s approach to United Farm Workers, a largely Mexican American labor union that he co-founded with Dolores Huerta, who devised its motto Sí se puede—“Yes we can”—itself taken up by movements and leaders around the world, including Barack Obama. As in the ’60s, events of the past few years may be an indication that many thresholds have been crossed: with #MeToo; the 2017 Women’s March, the largest single-day protest in American history; and Black Lives Matter—perhaps the largest movement in U.S. history, with up to 26 million believed to have joined the George Floyd protests thus far.
“When I was 19 at the March on Washington,” Carson recalls, “I had nothing to do with organizing. I was just a 19-year-old kid attending my first demonstration. I’ve since learned that it took veteran organizers and all the civil rights groups together months of planning to produce a protest of 200,000 people.” He also learned about the long tradition of social movements. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, established in 1957 after the Montgomery Bus Boycott victory and presided over by King, was run by individuals who previously organized with the Communist Party, the labor movement and the NAACP. Carson himself became active in SNCC and the antiwar movement, and he was beaten up by police in protests that many Americans have never heard of, on days when other Black protesters were killed. So while inflection points make for tidy stories of change, the most important story is perhaps that of the long civil rights movement and the long history of the struggle for human rights.
Like Carson, Allyson Hobbs, 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.
Within the context of this larger struggle, Hobbs sees the George Floyd protests as an inflection point, fueled by the pandemic—40 million Americans unemployed, young people out of school with time on their hands—and by the even more apparent racial inequity: Black people with significantly higher rates of COVID-19 hospitalization and death than whites, and the sense that America is failing to provide basic services like testing and health care. Then, she says, “we had this unbelievably traumatizing experience of seeing a man lynched—murdered on TV and in the most protracted—I mean, horrific way—and I think for many white people that was a real shock to the conscience, because there was no way to explain it as anything other than murder.”
Hobbs now hopes to see the increased awareness following the protests manifest at Stanford. In the long arc of movements pushing for social justice, progress at Stanford has in many ways mirrored the larger situation in the United States, reflecting a repeated pattern of abrupt, significant change followed by relative quiescence. For instance, the African and African American studies program was very much a product of its era—created in 1968, four days after King’s assassination, after Black Student Union members took the mic from the provost in Memorial Auditorium and made 10 demands about Black representation, hiring and curriculum. Nine of them were met. And yet more than 50 years later, despite ongoing recruitment and retention efforts, only 2 percent of faculty are Black.
In the wake of the George Floyd protests, the university is redoubling its efforts to increase the number of scholars who study race (see Confronting Anti-Black Racism at Stanford). Hobbs would also like to see the African and African American studies program become a department, a change that would require a vote by the Faculty Senate. “There’s not even one dedicated faculty member for African American studies,” Hobbs says. “We have to cobble together a curriculum. We’re always scrambling at the last minute to get people to teach our core courses, and students are only really getting two classes dedicated to African American studies. All the other classes are cross-listed, so a student could end up graduating with a major in African American studies and have a completely incoherent education.”
Gaining a sense of the complexity of race and social justice in America, Hobbs argues, requires faculty to teach the nuances. And that an increasing number of white students want to study race and understand the history of African Americans suggests that further thresholds are being crossed—that social change may, in fact, be accelerating. “There’s a real hunger for a strong African American studies department, and it’s not just among Black students,” she says. “Engineers, computer scientists, premed students will say, ‘I know it’s important for me to understand the complexity of race in our society in order for me to be a better engineer, to be a better computer scientist, to be a better doctor.’ I often have to turn down students. I had 80 students signed up for a seminar that was capped at 16. The need, the desire, the hunger is there, but we’re not meeting it.”
She refers to “The Other America,” the speech that King gave at Stanford in 1967, in which he said that Americans must condemn the conditions that give rise to riots as vigorously as they condemn riots. Without a long view of history, Hobbs says, without a deep knowledge of the complexity of race, we will see events without truly understanding them. She quotes King: “‘But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality and humanity.’˜”
Over time, movements and events propel one another.
President Harry S. Truman issues executive order ending segregation in the armed services.
Brown v. Board of Education declares segregated public schools “inherently unequal.”
Rosa Parks is arrested for not yielding her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Ala.
The Supreme Court rules segregated seating unconstitutional.
Southern Christian Leadership Conference is founded, with Martin Luther King Jr. as president.
Civil Rights Act of 1957 is intended to root out voter suppression.
College students protest segregation at lunch counters.
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee begins organizing college students nationwide.
The Freedom Riders occupy buses across the South to protest segregation.
César Chávez starts the labor union that will become United Farm Workers.
A quarter-million people attend the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. gives his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Equal Pay Act prohibits wage discrimination on the basis of sex.
Civil Rights Act of 1964 ends segregation in public places and bans employment discrimination based on protected characteristics.
Bloody Sunday: A march from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights receives national attention when Alabama state troopers attack the peaceful protesters.
Voting Rights Act of 1965 enables federal oversight of registration practices and bans suppression tactics.
National Organization for Women is founded.
Founding of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, a revolutionary socialist political organization.
Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated.
The American Indian Movement is founded.
Members of the LGBT community riot against police raids at the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village.
The first gay pride marches take place in major cities across the United States.
Title IX is passed to prevent sex discrimination at educational institutions.
The American Psychiatric Association removes homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Bowers v. Hardwick upholds a Georgia statute making homosexual sex a felony.
Kimberlé Crenshaw introduces the term intersectionality.
The Americans with Disabilities Act extends civil rights protections to people with disabilities.
Anita Hill testifies in the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas, who joins the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court overrules Bowers v. Hardwick.
#MeToo movement is founded.
The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act is passed. It is named for Shepard, a 21-year-old gay man tortured and murdered by other men, and Byrd, a Black man tortured and murdered by white supremacists.
Black Lives Matter is founded after George Zimmerman is acquitted in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Black boy.
In Obergefell v. Hodges, Supreme Court affirms the right to gay marriage.
Women’s March becomes largest single-day protest in U.S. history.
#MeToo movement gains energy with allegations against Harvey Weinstein.
George Floyd protests commence.
Bostock v. Clayton Co. holds that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
University renews efforts to improve inclusion, instruction and campus safety.
“The events of recent weeks following the murder of George Floyd have made us all painfully aware of the shameful legacy of anti-Black racism and how it endures in our communities and our country,” Stanford president Marc Tessier-Lavigne wrote in his June 30 email to the Stanford community. He described the steps the university is taking to create a more inclusive campus environment, such as hiring 10 new faculty members in the humanities, social sciences and STEM fields—“eminent scholars and researchers who are leaders in the study of the impact of race in America.” Tessier-Lavigne also announced the creation of the Center for Racial Justice at Stanford Law School, which will make policy proposals and publish research papers while offering conferences, workshops, public programs and policy labs.
Furthermore, the university has set the goal of fostering a new generation of scholars working on race in America through the IDEAL Engage initiative (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access in a Learning Environment). The Provostial IDEAL Fellows Program will provide three-year fellowships to four or five recent PhD recipients whose research focuses on race and ethnicity. IDEAL Engage is also offering antibias training programs for staff and senior leadership; career development programs for staff of color; and Brave Spaces, a virtual forum in which staff can discuss anti-Black racism with the goal of creating a more inclusive campus experience. In addition to these efforts, Tessier-Lavigne has appointed deputy athletic director Patrick Dunkley and professor emeritus of psychology Claude Steele as co-chairs of the newly created Community Board on Public Safety, which will evaluate the Stanford community’s relationship with policing as well as improve its communication with the university’s department of public safety.
Future projects include conducting a university-wide self-study on how best to support race and ethnicity studies; finding a new director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute; determining whether the African and African American Studies program should become a department; and forming a Black Community Council, which will connect Black alumni with students, faculty and staff to provide guidance with initiatives to support Stanford’s Black community.
These programs and more are just the starting point, Tessier-Lavigne says in his letter. “Eliminating racial injustice on our campus, and helping eradicate it in our society, will require a rigorous, comprehensive and sustained effort.”
More from Stanford scholars at alu.ms/socialchange
Deni Ellis Béchardis a senior writer at Stanford. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.