Placing the New Student Activism in Historical Context

Writing for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution [31 Dec. 2015: A,1], Nedra Rhone reports on the rise in organized student activism nationwide but especially in greater Atlanta. In the article “Today’s Student Activists: On Fire against a Gumbo of Issues,” she emphasizes that this new wave of student activism is targeting more than racism, addressing issues “from Black Lives Matter and police brutality, to sexual assault and sexual orientation, to academic freedom and cultural diversity.”

Students at seven Atlanta colleges and universities have not only formed a “coalition” to advance “equality and justice” both on their individual campuses and across the metro area. In addition, the students groups at several institutions have joined, a national group whose website presents a list of local to national issues being raised on 76 campuses across the U.S. (These lists of demands are very much worth reading.)

The more expansive and inclusive nature of this new student activism has been reflected in the variety of community groups with which the student groups have become allied.

There is some disagreement over the degree to which this new social-justice activism is a new iteration of the Civil-Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. For every parallel, there is also a notable difference. For instance, in both cases, students have facilitated their organizing by creating their own media, but in the earlier period, that communication was largely accomplished through underground newspapers, whereas today students are using social media. And the differences in those two media have created significant differences in the movement itself, with the current activism being much less hierarchical and more “organic.” Likewise, the earlier movement relied much more than the current movement on carefully planned confrontations and demonstrations, whereas social media has greatly increased the possibilities for more instantaneous responses to circumstances.

The Civil Rights movement focused more on gaining a voice on issues of great immediate concern, such as gaining voting rights and ending the Vietnam War—issues that were very difficult to resolve but for which the desired resolutions were fairly clear cut. In contrast, the new student activism has focused on superficially obvious but ultimately less easily defined and less easily resolved issues, such as the tensions between law enforcement and people of color in poor communities, the responsibility for violence that too often results from those tensions, and the longstanding, systemic inequities in the judicial system. Those systemic inequities often make it difficult to distinguish actual criminality from presumptions of criminality based on unacknowledged racial prejudice and unaddressed issues related to socio-economic disadvantage and mental-health concerns.

Rhone’s article is available at:

TheDemands--Emory U


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