Rights, Responsibilities and Relationships: A Look at Post World War II America
The 1950s through 1980s was an era of gaining rights in America. The civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights and disability rights movements took center stage during this 30 year period. I am proposing that we consider the 1990s to present day as the era of responsibilities and relationships and consider the implications of this shift away from structural change and more toward individual actions.
The African-American Civil Rights Movement has its roots in organizations like the NAACP, founded in 1909, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, founded by A. Philip Randolph in the 1930s. These groups built constituencies and filed lawsuits to address inequities based on race.
The Great Depression and WWII took center stage and shifted public attention away from civil rights during the late 1920s through the late 1940s. However, momentum was regained with the Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education in 1955, a case backed by the NAACP. Other events that captured the nation’s attention included the Montgomery bus boycott and the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins that spread across the American South.
In 1960, in support of these sit-ins, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC, was organized. This youthful organization consisted of both black and white college students from 56 colleges who convened on the campus of Shaw University in Raleigh, NC. Last year, Chatham-Savannah Citizen Advocacy was proud to host Mr. Chuck McDew, a founding member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, for a series of gatherings around Savannah. This was part of our effort to remind people of the sacrifice that was made in this country to insure that every person has the right to vote.
The women’s movement followed the civil rights movement in the minds of Americans, with women and their allies pushing for equal rights in the work place. Access to jobs and careers, and equal pay for equal work was the rallying cry. Gloria Steinem, who was a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, gained notoriety as a women’s rights activist, feminist, writer and lecturer during this time.
The Gay Rights Movement has followed these two movements, with people calling for the right to be given fair and equal treatment. These rights continue to be debated and contested on a state-by-state basis at present. Last year, Sean Penn won the Best Actor Oscar for his remarkable portrayal of groundbreaking Gay Rights activist, Harvey Milk.
The African-American Civil Rights Movement offered a model for the Disability Rights Movement, founded by Ed Roberts, the first student with a disability to attend Berkley in the late 1960s. Ed was the leader of the Independent Living/Civil Rights for People with Disabilities movement that flowered in the 1970s. Berkeley was the first university to have a federally funded Disabled Students Program that created supports for young men and women with physical disabilities to attend college. The L.I.F.E. (Living Independently for Everyone) organization here in Savannah has its roots in Ed Roberts Center for Independent Living at Berkley.
Social change movements do not have exacting beginnings and ends. There is never complete and total victory. The fight for rights is hard won and, as time goes by, challenges and tactics changed. By the 1990s it appeared that the era of “movements” was receding. Most people in America had won a reasonable measure of legal and structural equality. There were and are obvious exceptions to this, but in general the laws of our land have been changed in a way that creates more equality for people in the eyes of the law. Implementation is far from complete and certainly, the reality of what we see happening and not happening for people with disabilities in our communities does not always live up to the letter or spirit of the law.
I am suggesting that we are at the beginning of a new era today, and that is the era of responsibilities and relationships. Here are several questions meant to enliven discussion around the notion that we have entered a “post rights era” and are at the beginning of a long and hopeful era of responsibilities and relationships:
- In what ways are we as citizens of America, of Savannah, of our neighborhood, responsible for our own actions?
- In what ways do our actions either encourage or diminish the right that all people have to be welcomed and encouraged – to be a part of community life?
- Is being welcomed and encouraged to be a part of community life a right or a responsibility that falls to all of us as citizens in order to enliven one another?
- Do the personal relationships I have with other people reflect a welcoming community or a rejecting community?
Here are a few very direct suggestions for honoring the idea of bringing Rights, Responsibilities and Relationships to life in your citizen advocacy relationship and in your neighborhood. All three of these are brought forth in the following suggestions for civic action. There is potential for dozens more direct examples of course.
- Are you registered to vote? Is your protégé (for citizen advocates) registered to vote? If the answer to either question is, “No”, then please consider registering. Your protégé may need some help with this.
- Are you connected to a local political party? Party politics are a great way to meet people and have a common goal. Many times the local offices of the Democratic and Republican parties are looking for folks to help with all sorts of volunteer jobs. See if there’s some way you and your protégé can become part of your party’s electoral efforts.
- Is there a particular candidate you or your protégé would like to support? Maybe someone is especially open and willing to work on issues that are important to you. Get behind that person and help them get elected. There are lots of jobs for volunteers in a political campaign.
- Can you and your protégé work together to see the position various candidates hold on issues that are important to you? See the reference to America According to Conner Gifford at the end of this article.
The bottom line here is that taking the time to help someone participate in the democratic processes of our country is time well spent. If you are a citizen advocate, consider making sure your that protégé has the opportunity and help they need to vote and become active in the process, and to understand the issues that are important to them.
Here is some information that can get you started:
Voter registration in Savannah:
1117 Eisenhower Dr # E
Savannah, GA 31406-3929
Contact information for local political parties:
Chatham County Democratic Party Headquarters
109 W. Victory Dr.
Savannah, GA 31405
Meetings 2nd Monday of the month at 6 pm.
Chatham County Republican Party Headquarters
11 E. 73 Street
Savannah, GA 31405
M – F, 10:30 am to 1:30 pm
These websites explain how our democratic/election process works in America:
The book America According to Connor Gifford, by Connor Gifford, tells the history of America written by a man with Down syndrome. The key themes include: civil rights, women’s rights, why wars begin, religious freedom and individual responsibility. The book changes stereotypes and perception about those with Down Syndrome, Autism, and other special needs.
ADAPT is a national grass-roots community that organizes disability rights activists to engage in non-violent direct action, including civil disobedience, to assure the civil and human rights of people with disabilities to live in freedom. //www.adapt.org