In the winter of 1965, as the fifth anniversary of the Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in approached, reporters from around the world penned pieces looking back at the historic protest that sparked similar acts of civil disobedience across the South. The sit-in had led to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the era’s most important movements. In one form or another, the news articles all asked: “What has happened?” Where was the nation after four North Carolina Agricultural and Technical students struck out against the state’s segregation laws?
SNCC workers had fanned out across the state of Mississippi to register voters, provide civic education, and cultivate food collectives among the state’s most dispossessed. President Lyndon Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act the previous summer. But the anniversary wasn’t necessarily a moment for celebration. SNCC’s ambitious Freedom Summer in Mississippi was met with violence, and volunteers mourned multiple murder victims. Although the federal government outlawed “whites-only” counters, “colored bathrooms,” and separate water fountains, access to public accommodations was not as urgent as the other priorities on the freedom agenda.
Black unemployment was twice the rate of white joblessness. Housing discrimination was a fact of life for black people across the country. Racist, abusive policing continued to terrify local communities. And a decade after Brown vs. Board of Education, black children were still in schools with a fraction of the economic resources afforded white children. Jibreel Khazan, a member of the sit-in quartet, told the Washington Post that he had been chastened by the lack of change since he and his classmates remained unmoved on those stools. “You know how kids believe in Santa Claus. . . . that’s how we believed we would win the sit-down. . . . But it is a mistake to think time alone will win for us. Time is a neutral factor. You have to work in that time to get anywhere.”
Looking back is difficult, imprecise work. Five years after the Ferguson uprising, sparked by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, killing teenager Michael Brown in a St. Louis County, Missouri, town—the moment when the nascent Black Lives Matter movement became internationally recognized—journalists have in many ways taken the same tone as their predecessors in 1965. There are endless angles: the unmet promises to revitalize Ferguson, the continued struggle to reform policing practices to ensure accounting of and accountability for misconduct and brutality, and the ways that mass mobilization has become one of many strategies in the fight against the current White House’s excesses. The headlines ask: “What happened to Black Lives Matte...
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