Remembering Movement-Building Moments During Black History Month

Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College who writes widely on U.S. politics and public policy, highlights some movement-building moments in Black political history that are worth remembering:

"64 Years Ago Today: How Four College Students Started a Revolution,"  CommonDreams, February 1, 2024.   

On February 1, 1960, four Black college students in Greensboro, NC, sat at a Woolworth's lunch counter, ordered coffee, and refused to leave. They were intentionally breaking the Jim Crow segregation laws. As I explain in this article, their act of defiance and courage sparked a huge sit-in movement across the South that changed America. It led to the formation of SNCC in April 1960, whose activists (including John Lewis) led key campaigns, including the Freedom Rides and voting rights, leading to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in 1964 and 1965. White and Black allies of the sit-in movement picketed Woolworth stores and other national chains in NY, Chicago, LA, Detroit, Atlanta, and other cities to show solidarity. The movement brought tens of thousands of people into different forms of activism, many of whom became lifetime activists and organizers for social justice. Today's activists can learn from this history. Jim Crow seemed unchangeable. Until it wasn't, as Dreier's essay demonstrates.

"Jackie Robinson and Paul Robeson: The Misunderstood Relationship Between These Activist Athletes,” NINE, Volume 32, Number 2, Spring 2024.

There's a pervasive myth that a conservative Jackie Robinson attacked the radical Paul Robeson during his testimony before HUAC in Congress in 1949, the height of the Red Scare. In reality, right-wing forces in Congress and the media tried to manufacture a rift between them--the two most popular Black figures in the country at the time. The media portrayed Robinson as a patriot and a critic of Robeson's left wing views. The media also mis-reported Robeson's comments as a left-wing conference in Paris. Robinson wasn't a Communist but he deeply respected Robeson's courage and outspokenness as well as his many talents. Robeson likewise admired Robinson for his courage, talent, and willingness to use his athletic celebrity as a platform to challenge American racism.  In this article, Dreier explains the myths and the reality of their relationship in the historic context of the Cold War--and how it shaped the image of these two remarkable men even today.

"The Life and Legacy of Bayard Rustin," The Progressive, December 15, 2023.   Bayard Rustin was one of the most courageous and influential radicals in American history - an amazing organizer, strategist, and thinker. He was a close advisor to Martin Luther King and organized the 1963 March on Washington. He was a controversial figure--a Black, gay, socialist pacifist. He is belatedly getting the attention he deserves, including the new film, "Rustin." Dreier's article in The Progressive discusses the man, the march, the movement, and the movie.


Image credit:News & Record Staff, © News & Record

Sitting from left: Joseph McNeil, Billy Smith and Clarence Henderson on second day of sit-ins, Woolworth, Greensboro, February 2, 1960