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Research Paper on Social Activism

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American political thought has dramatically shifted in the last couple of centuries, and our country’s changing political ferment can be seen no clearer than through the eyes of social activists, who have long helped improve the lives of disenfranchised citizens. This research paper visits the Civil Rights Movement and Free Speech Movement to identify how the goals of a few helped modernize an entire society.

In Search of Social Equality Through Activism

In over 200 years there have been events, movements, and important individuals that have made the political processes and ideology of the nation transform and be reevaluated. And in the last 50 years there have been two such movements that have had an exceptionally dramatic effect on the idea of modern politics.  These two movements are the Free Speech Movement and the Civil Rights Movement.  They have had a particularly lasting effect on the social and political climate in America.  Politicians have to be so precise and delicate with what they say to the American public as a result of these two movements that their messages are often lost to the people.  

The Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights Movement has been one of the most influential social and political movements to be undertaken in recent memory in this country.  The fight for equality among races had been a constant, uphill struggle since the end of the Civil War and, subsequent, end of slavery.  Though African-Americans were legally free, discrimination against their race had not seen an end.  The fight for gaining social, political, and even basic equality seemed to be never ending.  Attempts to make peaceful stands against racism and bigotry were generally responded with excessive force and violence from either the authorities, the general population, or, sometimes, both.  

One of the most influential figures of the time, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (who was compared to Socrates), advocated for nonviolence in the face of violence.  As a minister and devout Christian, Dr. King felt that to combat such hatred and violence with violence in its own right would never, ultimately, lead to a world of peace and acceptance.  Dr. King wanted peaceful protest from those of the Civil Rights Movement.  He hoped that by appearing to the world as a nonviolent, organized, and peaceful group, the world would sympathize and grant rights to those pushing so hard for basic equality.

One of his most influential letters at the time, the letter from Birmingham Jail reflects his notions of peaceful protest.  In this letter, he is quoted as saying, “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of facts to determine where injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action,” (King, pg 1).  Dr. King pushes never for violence; in fact, he pushes for self-purification as an action for Civil Rights actions.  This nonviolent approach would eventually pay dividends and shape reshape the modern political scheme as more and more Americans saw just how terrible meeting nonviolent protesting with excessive force true was.

A Lesser Know Movement for Free Speech

Another movement that has had lasting effects on the country comes in the form of the Free Speech Movement.  The movement was a student protest that took place during the 1964-1965 academic year at UC Berkeley.  The aim of this movement was for the students to get the campus to remove the on-campus bans of political activities and to acknowledge the students’ right to both free speech and academic freedom.  In a showing of unprecedented student support, the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley generated much public and political notice.  The students involved in the sit-ins and demonstrations numbered into the thousands and, at one point, around 400 students were arrested for their involvement in the protests.  Like the Civil Rights movement, this was a fight for a basic, guaranteed freedom that the students of UC Berkeley were being denied (much like China and other parts of the world).

These movement’s struggles can be summed up in a Hobbes quote from Leviathan.  “..In the nature of man we find three principal causes of quarrel: first, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory,” (Hobbes, 85).  With consideration to both the Free Speech and Civil Rights Movements, there is a direct correlation to Hobbes’ logic.  The two movements both caused quarrel for Hobbes’ second principle.  Difference was the driving factor in these movements.  Be it hatred for a race, as in the Civil Rights Movement, or different ideologies and ages, as with the Free Speech Movement, the fact of the matter remains that the differences between two groups, who were still ultimately humans, grew into massive conflicts that has lasting effects on the country’s political system.

The Impact of Social Activism  

The effects of these two movements have reshaped the way of modern politics.  In the current era, politicians must, in a matter of speaking, walk on eggshells around issues that surround both the freedom of speech and racial equality.  We now live in a world where a politician must be so careful in what they say, as to not offend a group that we lose much of what is being said in political jargon.  The modern political world is best summed up by the quote from Lippmann: “The world that we have to deal with politically is out of reach, out of sight, out of mind.  It has to be explored, reported, and imagined,” (Lippmann, pg 15).  For fear of negative repercussions of their actions both spoken and written, politicians take a very loose approach on their stances in the modern political era.

It is not unusual for a running politician to never truly explain his or her position or plan for an issue.  They leave the details of it posted on the Internet or in a hard copy with the political headquarters.  Instead, the general population hears how the politician “cares about the American people” or “wants to help fight for the middle class.”  Without actually saying anything of substantial importance, the politician appears to be a man of the people.

With this new, modern political system in place, our entire line of thinking has to shift to understand politics.  As correctly interpreted by Lippmann, “It is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart,” (Lippmann, pg 136).  The current state of modern politics is so polarized and full of mistrust that any action that is undertaken in the political world is immediately judged under high amounts of scrutiny.  In a world where the population does not trust in its leaders and are only given the most basic of ideas as to what their leaders plans are for running the country, the system in place has become ineffective.  

The Civil Rights and Free Speech Movements were necessary events  and the lasting positive effects of the two are without question.  There exists, however a negative side effect from these two movements.  They have helped to push the political system to a point where those involved within it have to be extremely mindful and cautious as to what they say and do.  Trying to not be seen as censoring the public’s voice and not appearing to be racial motivated has forced politicians to only saying the most basic of political statements.  

Additionally, the idea of being “politically correct” has evolved to such a state that people in the system are weighed down by so much political red tape that they are forced to go through extensive procedures that slow the entire political process.  Though these two movements are not the sole cause of the political systems shortcomings, they have played an undeniable role in what has become modern politics.  These two social movements lasting effects should, therefore, be just that: lasting social effects.  The nation has so many issues that need to be solved and dealt with that tiptoeing around being “politically correct,”  politicians must remember they are there to serve the people.      

Works Cited

Hobbes, . Leviathan. 81-89. Print. 

King Jr., Dr. Martin Luther. "Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]." African Studies Center. University of   Pennsylvania, 16 1963. Web. 23 Jan 2010. 

Lippmann. Public Opinion. “Manufacturing Consent” 134-137. Print. 

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