African American students from Saint Augustine College study while participating in a sit-in at a lunch counter reserved for white customers in Raleigh, North Carolina. Two waitresses pointedly ignore them from the other side of the counter.
“One evening nine years ago 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was walking through a Florida neighborhood with candy and iced tea when a vigilante pursued him and ultimately shot him dead. The killing shocked me back to the summer of 1955, when as a six-year-old boy I heard that a teenager named Emmett Till had been lynched at Money, Miss., less than 30 miles from where I lived with my grandparents. I remember the nightmares, the trying to imagine how it might feel to be battered beyond recognition and dropped into a river. The similarities in the two assaults, almost six decades apart, were uncanny. Both youths were Black, both were visiting the communities where they were slain, and in both cases their killers were acquitted of murder. And in both cases, the anguish and outrage that Black people experienced on learning of the exonerations sparked immense and significant social movements. In December 1955, days after a meeting in her hometown of Montgomery, Ala., about the failed effort to get justice for Till, Rosa Parks refused to submit to racially segregated seating rules on a bus—igniting the Civil Rights Movement (CRM). And in July 2013, on learning about the acquittal of Martin’s killer, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi invented the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, a rallying cry for numerous local struggles for racial justice that sprang up across the U.S. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is still unfolding, and it is not yet clear what social and political transformations it will engender. But within a decade after Till’s murder, the social movement it detonated overthrew the brutal ‘Jim Crow’ order in the Southern states of the U.S. Despite such spectacular achievements, contemporary scholars such as those of the Chicago School of Sociology continued to view social movements through the lens of ‘collective behavior theory.’ Originally formulated in the late 19th century by sociologist Gabriel Tarde and psychologist Gustave Le Bon, the theory disdained social movements as crowd phenomena: ominous entities featuring rudderless mobs driven hither and thither by primitive and irrational urges. As a member of what sociologist and activist Joyce Ladner calls the Emmett Till generation, I identify viscerally with struggles for justice and have devoted my life to studying their origins, nature, patterns and outcomes. Around the world, such movements have played pivotal roles in overthrowing slavery, colonialism, and other forms of oppression and injustice. And although the core methods by which they overcome seemingly impossible odds are now more or less understood, these struggles necessarily (and excitingly) continue to evolve faster than social scientists can comprehend them. …”