From Social Change to Climate Change: Lessons from the 1960s?

March on Washington 1963 photo

The transformative events of the turbulent nineteen-sixties may offer lessons for the climate challenges of the 21st Century.

This year, the looks-back and looks-ahead that typically accompany the year-to-year transition left out an important ongoing story: the return of the 60s.

Americans have begun a decade of 50th anniversaries of momentous historical events. In 2013 Americans celebrated the anniversary of the March on Washington and remembered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Later this year, after observing the 50th anniversary of the declaration of the War on Poverty, Americans will observe the 50th anniversary of a related event: passage of the Civil Rights Act in July 1964.

LBJ Civil Rights Celeb Photo
This year, after observing the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of the War on Poverty, Americans will begin to review the debates that finally led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act, in July 1964.

Remembrances of Things Past

Over the next several years, Americans will observe the 50th anniversaries of the assassination of Malcolm X, the Selma protests and march, the creation of the Medicare and Medicaid programs, the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the Watts riots, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and the riots that occurred in their wakes, the Kent State shootings, the first Earth Day, the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Watergate Break-In and, two years later, the resignation of Richard Nixon.

In a time when the United States faces great challenges, including the need to act on climate change, the nation will reflect on one of the most turbulent decades in its history.

In these public acts of remembrance, environmental journalists and climate change communicators have an opportunity to study a period of significant social change. But what lessons can, or should, they learn?

Debating the Historic March on Washington

March on Washington poster
Last August marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Will similar strategies work in today’s Washington? Graphic credit: Miami.edu

A more specific version of this question was raised and answered, in different ways, during the observance in August 2013 of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. That question — Should the climate change movement emulate the strategies and tactics of the civil rights movement? — is certain to be raised again when passage of the Civil Rights Act is celebrated in July of 2014.

In August, Climate Progress blogger Joseph Romm, billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer, Green for All CEO Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, and staff writers at The Daily Climate answered in the affirmative. In doing so, two pieces cited an April 2013 survey conducted by The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication. According to that report, “How Americans Communicate about Global Warming,” 13 percent of Americans are willing to engage in some form of non-violent civil disobedience. To Tom Steyer, “this is a dramatic number.”

Americans are not willing to put up with denial any longer. Opinions are shifting — hard and fast. People understand the risks as they begin to see and feel the impacts, and they are tired of the dysfunction that is preventing change. All that these individuals need is a clear, direct action to take.

Political and historical commentators, by contrast, raised doubts about the efficacy of the march, about the extent to which non-violent civil disobedience alone prompted the desired legislative remedies, and about the transferability of these techniques to contemporary problems and causes.

And given the dramatic changes in American culture, media, and politics since then, one must ask whether non-violent civil disobedience on behalf of climate policy in 2013 can be equated with civil disobedience by civil rights protesters in the 1960s.

Non-violent civil disobedience may be exciting to contemplate, but unless it can effectively communicate a coherent message capable of prompting political action by those who witness it, non-violent civil disobedience should not figure prominently in activists’ playbooks.

The Televised Dramas of Sixties Non-Violent Civil Disobedience

The practitioners of non-violent civil disobedience in the 1960s recognized the need to understand the operational requirements of the media and the viewpoints of their intended audience. As civil rights activists and organizers Julian Bond, John Lewis, and Andrew Young explained in the August 2013 program of The Kalb Report, the sit-ins and protests of the civil rights movement were carefully planned events artfully staged for the new national medium of the nightly network news broadcasts.

John Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia, summed up the movement’s strategy for working with media this way: “The civil rights movement without the media would be like a bird without wings. … When we had a protest, when we had a demonstration, we knew we had to do it at a certain time to make the evening news.”

During the Q&A session for the same program of The Kalb Report, Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta and former ambassador to the United Nations, was more specific. Events were scheduled for late morning so that the film could be on the 1:00 PM flight from Atlanta to New York City, where it would be developed and edited in time for that evening’s network news programs.

The non-violent actions of the civil rights protesters were designed to deliver a story — visually.

“The sit-ins were so disciplined,” Lewis said. “We had these well-dressed college students sitting there, orderly, reading a book, writing a paper, looking straight ahead. And then you had the [racist] element come up and beat on them, …. People saw the contrast.”

The violence of racism was manifested by angry white patrons who abused and beat protesters respectfully asserting their equality.

It was thus television that presented the civil rights movement to the American people. As Kalb noted, “In the South, … the local news was extremely sympathetic to the white end of the argument,” and the print news often missed the story. In its coverage of the March on Washington, for example, The Washington Post, primed to cover the civil disturbances that authorities expected, did not mention in their lead news stories Martin Luther King’s speech. In covering the civil rights movement, Andrew Young said, “The written press never quite believed what they saw.”

At the time of the March on Washington, the networks’ nightly news programs were still just 15 minutes. (The March itself, however, was broadcast live in its entirety.) After the assassination of President Kennedy, the nightly broadcasts were expanded to 30 minutes. Within a few years, the three nightly network news programs together were reaching nearly 80 percent of American households.

Civil Disobedience in the Time of Climate Change

The contrast with today’s media environment is striking: While the civil rights movement worked closely with television news just as it was coming into its heyday, the climate movement must contend with increasingly fractionalized and polarized media. There is no news medium that can now consistently deliver the same message to 80 percent of American households. Many may never hear of an action, and many of those who do will likely have it reported to them in a way that suits their political pre-judgments.

Keystone XL protest photo
It’s almost one year since protesters flocked to Washington to protest the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, with no final decision yet announced by the Obama administration.

In the recent protests against the Keystone XL Pipeline, the visuals were also much more muted. Somewhat well-dressed and predominantly Caucasian protesters tethered themselves to the fence surrounding the White House. (Note: Julian Bond did participate in the February 13, 2013, protest.) Police carefully disconnected them, cuffed them, and then put them into vans to be taken to the station for booking. No drama. No risk. And the point of the action could not be discerned from the images; it had to be explained in words.

Compared with the scenes of protesters being beaten at lunch counters of downtown department stores, the message of the non-violent civil disobedience enacted by climate activists is not nearly so clear, coherent, or compelling.

But in contrast with the message of the televised civil rights dramas from the South, which “only” asked viewers in the rest of the country to accept African-Americans as equals, climate activists’ calls for reductions in greenhouse gases, if traced to their logical conclusions, must entail material changes in lifestyles. Even though less compelling, these messages are more demanding.

The Critical Role Played by Historical ‘Accidents’

In addition to the difficulty of matching its effectiveness, there is another reason to question the applicability of the civil rights model: The non-violent civil disobedience of the civil rights protesters was a necessary but not sufficient condition for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The more skeptical responses to the 2013 March on Washington pointed to other contributing factors: Malcolm X and the rise of Black Power, the political pressure exerted by international opinion in the context of the Cold War, and speeches by Kennedy and other national and international actors. But even these commentators left out the critical historical event that was “observed” three months later: the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

The debate over the legacy of President Kennedy is more contentious than the commentary on the March on Washington. (See here, here, and here, for representative examples.) Nevertheless, many observers and analysts have concluded that the assassination of President Kennedy, in the South, made it possible for his successor,  Texan southerner Lyndon Johnson, to push the first critical piece of legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, through Congress.

Marvin Kalb and Dan Rather, both in 1963 working for CBS, discussed this point in the November 22, 2013 program of The Kalb Report:

MARVIN KALB: What if Kennedy had not been assassinated, and, in fact, had been reelected? … Do you think that we would have had a civil rights law, a voting rights law, such as were passed under Lyndon Johnson in ’64 and 65?

DAN RATHER: No, I don’t think we would have had them any time in the ’60s. I’m not sure we would have had them in the ’70s. … [And] it was by no means certain that Kennedy was going to be [re-]elected in 1964.

And here, from his 2013 book, The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Last Legacy of John F. Kennedy, is political scientist Larry J. Sabato‘s answer to Kalb’s question:

This was the same Congress, dominated by a conservative coalition of Southern Democrats and some right-leaning Republicans, that had thwarted most of Kennedy’s agenda. Johnson knew he could combine his legislative skills with overwhelming public grief to break the logjam and produce a cornucopia’s plenty from Capital Hill. … Prodded by LBJ and public opinion, this Congress would throw caution to the wind in the rush to memorialize JFK and to please the insistent White House occupant.

While acknowledging the unlikely possibility that a triumphantly re-elected Kennedy might have been able to do more, Sabato then summarizes the scholarly consensus on the point: “No political observer then or historian now would assert that JKF could have wrangled as strong a civil rights bill from a Congress that frustrated so many of his objectives.”

These passages suggest that two historical “accidents” were required to give impetus to the Civil Rights Act of 1964: the assassination of John F. Kennedy and his replacement by a strong leader with first-hand and detailed knowledge of, and extensive experience with, congressional politics. Far better equipped for this work than Kennedy, Johnson was able to maintain party discipline while negotiating across the aisle. Few climate activists would say that the current president wields such power.

Trust in Government

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That is the case in part because of the changes set in motion by the tumultuous events of the 1960s. Trust in government began to decline almost immediately after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. Shortly thereafter, as Johnson had predicted, the South switched its allegiance from the Democratic Party to the Republican. Dissatisfaction with the jockeying for power within the parties, disillusionment with the Vietnam War, and dismay at the criminal activities within the Nixon White House led to further declines in public trust. It was also during this period that conservative suspicion of the media began to rise.

It is worth noting, however, that even after Nixon’s resignation, trust in government, even with that backdrop, was higher than it has been at any time since 2005. According to the October 2013 report from Pew Research, 80 percent of Americans now trust government only “some of the time” or not at all. Echoing this finding, a December 2013 Gallup poll reported that “72 percent of Americans say big government is a bigger threat to the U.S. in the future than is big business or big labor.”

Starting Anew by Stopping Old Routines

A new year is an opportunity to start anew. A decade of successive attempts to communicate climate change has thus far failed to move an effective national climate policy through Congress. And it seems unlikely that non-violent civil disobedience will solve this problem; the conditions that made it work in the 1960s are not present today. This is not to say that non-violent civil disobedience has no place in communicating climate change, only that it is not the answer.

January 2013 is the first anniversary of the release of “Naming the Problem,” the report Harvard professor Theda Skocpol, drafted for the February 2013 symposium on “The Politics of America’s Fight Against Global Warming.” In concluding her analysis, Skocpol proposed an all-of-the-above approach: “Funders and green groups alike should recognize the advantages of multiple coalitions using different strategies to push broadly in the same direction.” But she insisted that proponents of action on climate change must first stop relying on comfortably familiar ways of measuring progress.

Professionally run organizations and D.C. insiders take national surveys too seriously. A lot of what they measure amounts to nothing more than momentary shifts in aggregate opinion, swayed by events, elite debates, and the latest coverage…. The new vogue to pay psychological researchers to come up with phrases that subliminally appeal to individuals is even more of a waste of resources for organizations facing serious political challenges, not because psychology is uninteresting, but because it tells us nothing about networks and organizations, the real stuff of politics. Opponents of climate change legislation do not worry about shallow, inert aggregate individual opinions.

Even a stable 70-80 percent level of public concern need not worry such opponents, one might add, if a small but determined fraction of the electorate still can effectively block federal action — as has proven the case.

In sum, recognizing that the political landscape has changed substantially since the 1960s, in part because of the transformative events of that decade, is critical to navigating the current landscape. And working with others to change that landscape — by also addressing broader social issues like income inequality, as Skocpol suggests, or by supporting measures that might restore trust in government — may be as or even more important than re-crafting messages about climate change. The long-term success of the new national health care program, for example, may play a bigger role in determining future climate policy in the U.S. than will the next round of climate assessments.

Much more may be learned as Americans continue to revisit the social changes brought about by the 1960s, but one lesson already seems clear: Making things work well may be a necessary condition of making things happen.

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Writing at The George Washington University with a long interest in climate change communications. (E-mail: msvoboda@yaleclimatemediaforum.org)
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3 Responses to From Social Change to Climate Change: Lessons from the 1960s?

  1. Joe Witte says:

    Fortunately trust in “government scientists” is still quite high still.

  2. Scott Miller says:

    This is a helpful statement of the problem, but now we need a practical theory of how to “change the landscape.” I would put campaign finance reform at the top of the preconditions list, and I would be willing to march. Climate may not (yet) generate the drama of a civil rights clash, but large demonstrations can’t be ignored, and the Internet is too cloistered. It doesn’t help to preach to the choir unless the choir is prepared to leave the church.

  3. Nullius in Verba says:

    “Even a stable 70-80 percent level of public concern need not worry such opponents, one might add, if a small but determined fraction of the electorate still can effectively block federal action – as has proven the case.”

    The reason for the block on federal action has been explained in the Byrd-Hagel resolution, and turns out to be the opposition of developing nations to carbon emission limitations. Have you therefore considered taking your protests to China? It might not be any more effective, but it would at least be targeting the right legislature.

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