In some of my recent posts, I have written about how we have come to believe a simplistic narrative of the civil rights movement—one which celebrates its successes but places it squarely in the past, disconnecting “the movement” from current protest movements in favor of racial equality.
This view can be explained in part, I believe, by the failure of “massive resistance.” In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, southern politicians published the so-called “Southern Manifesto,” pledging to resist desegregation by all available means. In several Virginia counties (including Prince Edward County, where one of the cases consolidated into Brown originated), this eventually resulted in the complete closure of all public schools.
In the end, though, massive resistance failed. The “out-and-out racists” were unsuccessful in achieving their stated aims of preventing desegregation of public schools. Still, they did succeed in one very important way: shifting the frame of reference and providing political cover for “moderate”—that is, more tactful—resistance to civil rights activism. By staking out an extreme position, proponents of massive resistance helped more moderate voices to build (white) consensus around less inflammatory white prerogatives. Compared to the radical proposals of massive resisters, plenty of segregationist policies appeared more palatable, the lesser of two evils.
Thinking about these questions lately has led me to a question with contemporary relevance: To what extent does President Trump do something today? In other words, to what extent does Trump’s bluster shift the frame of reference? Take immigration reform for instance. Do Trump’s demands for a completely implausible multi-billion dollar wall and his family separation policy make other hard-line immigration policies appear “moderate” by comparison?
To what extent do we, by giving so much attention to Trump, miss important rollbacks on civil rights taking place at the state and local level?