Loyola University Chicago

Civic Engagement and Civil Discourse


Panel: What can past leaders teach today’s activists?

Panel: What can past leaders teach today’s activists?

Michelle Nickerson, associate professor in the Department of History, answers a question during Social Movements in the U.S.: Lessons Learned, an April 9 panel held in the Damen Den.

There is plenty for today’s social justice advocates to learn from their predecessors.

During the panel Social Movements in the U.S.: Lessons Learned, held April 6 in the Damen Den, Loyola faculty members looked back to U.S. and international history to offer up a few key points. Topics included the role of allies in organized movements, the positive and negative benefits of today’s technology, and past mistakes we can learn from today.

One mistake that social movements have sometimes made is not having a clearly defined goal, said Rhys Williams, a panelist and a professor in the Department of Sociology.

“One of the things I learned early in my career teaching sociology is you can respond to every single question with, ‘it depends,’” he said. “I’m going to take the opportunity here to say: When it comes to mistakes, it kind of depends on what was hoped to gain in the first place.”

That goal could be educating people on an issue or getting a specific outcome or change made, he continued.

Williams was joined by Twyla Blackmond Larnell, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science; Michelle Nickerson, associate professor in the Department of History; and Matthew Williams, a lecturer in the Department of Sociology. This panel is the second of three events this semester promoting civil discourse on campus.

Moderator Christopher Manning, associate professor in the Department of History and assistant provost on Academic Diversity, kept questions coming—with some help from students and faculty in attendance. One topic Manning discussed was the concept of civility and the inequitable way groups have been called to observe it. Nickerson pointed out that civil rights, feminist, and other progressive movements in the twentieth century were often unfairly accused of subversion or being disruptive.

“The problem was not their ideas necessarily,” she said. “On the surface, nobody wanted to claim that was a problem, the idea of equality. The problem was the way in which they were fomenting rebellion. They were creating the possibility for riots and danger. So there’s always the implication by critics that anything that you’re doing could possibly create unrest.”

Manning agreed with her point, bringing up Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1966 march in a Chicago neighborhood, where he was struck in the head with a brick—an incident heavily covered in city papers at the time.

“King is the one who is portrayed as a communist and a subversive,” Manning said. “In all of my research, I’ve never seen an extended story on that brick thrower.”

The stories he’s read about the community, however, raise another question: “Were the people within the community that threw that brick, were they called communists? No.”

Mobilization and demobilization was another reoccurring theme of the day’s discussion. While social media and technology helps spread information and images that could trigger an initial wave of support, that support doesn’t always translate to a long-term commitment.

“Just want to be clear to emphasize that the effected group is always working on these issues,” Larnell said. “So when that spark happens, it’s not just to mobilize the effected. That spark does a bigger job of mobilizing allies, bringing attention to all of those who are not specifically affected. We saw this with Black Lives Matter, we saw this with the Women’s March, we’ve seen this with earlier labor movements.”

Matthew Williams considered it a matter of perspective: While some people may see activism a major part of their life and community, many want to return to their normal day-to-day lives after a small win.

“So there is a question of how do you keep people engaged over the long run?” he added. “I think part of that is having a strong inclusive, inviting culture in a social movement—not just as diverse and democratic—but where is the real sense of community?”