When Worlds Collide: The Success and Culture of The Civil Rights Movement



“Land of the free,” so claims America, yet millions of African Americans would counter that “there’s never been equality for me, nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free” (Hughes). Langston Hughes’s words bleed with the bold injustices of segregation and discrimination that many black Americans suffered prior to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The movement was undoubtedly successful in reforming the legislative landscape of the nation; the passage of the Civil Rights Act 1964, 1968, and the Voting Rights Act 1965 marked unprecedented legal change in the span of a decade. Such a magnitude of success has been sought by nearly every movement which followed – each frames itself as the next Civil Rights movement and their leaders are framed as the next Martin Luther King. The rhetoric and attitudes of the movement have been immortalized and woven into the definition of America. The words, songs, and people which resound nearly fifty years later however come with lingering questions: how do social movements create change and how was the Civil Rights Movement so effective in doing so? In order to answer this question, I propose a model in which to study social and political change and I assert that it is through the strength and relevancy of culture that the Civil Rights Movement created a permanent impact upon the United States.

The Collision Model

In order to address how political and social change comes about, it is important to first define culture – the entity which either creates or undergoes change. Hannah Arendt models human society as a set of distinct yet fluid realms. The first realm is that of the individual, the private sphere. This realm covers home life, personal attitudes, and personal values. Within this sphere a hierarchy of authority can exist, evidenced by the unquestionable authority of the heads of the household over the children. The second realm is one of the public-political, intended to be separate from the private because the political sphere is one where equal individuals can present and listen to arguments without hierarchies of authority. Within the political sphere, change is created and permanency is established through action. There lies a third sphere, that of the social, which serves as the muddled border between the private and the public – a sphere which involves the choices among who people associate with through friendships, work relationships, and marriage (Arendt).

The political sphere affects the social sphere through laws that dictate associations such as those of miscegenation and segregation. These associations in turn affect the private environment because home life is a direct consequence of who an individual interacts with. Since the argument of equals only exists in the public sphere, it is there that action must occur in order to spur a change in the other spheres of life. A modified Arendtian model can then be naturally extended to describe the kinetics of political change. The three spheres of society can be bound together into a singular sphere that will be labeled as the cultural sphere. The cultural sphere cumulatively contains the attitudes and private beliefs of its citizens, their choices of association, and the legislative landscape which dictate the political laws of the society. A social movement can be represented by such a cultural sphere because it possesses a culture: the activists have their own attitudes towards the issue at hand, they have associations among other members and allies, and they have a public agenda which is an argument to change the current political landscape in accordance to their issues. There then exists a cultural sphere for the dominant, pre-existing society- it contains its defining characteristics such as societal values, attitudes, class systems and associations, and systems of legislation and arbitration.


Visualizing two spheres of life


In order for political change to occur, the two spheres of culture must interact and produce a new sphere which represents the society after the movement’s effects have occurred. I propose a Collision Model which can illustrate this process of change. Within this model, the two cultural spheres of the movement and the dominant culture are each represented by a circle. It should be noted that these two circles are not of equal size; the circular area of the social movement is much smaller than that of the dominant. Change occurs when these two circles collide and create an overlap, similar to the result of creating a Venn diagram. The overlap represents the process of change: the negotiation of common ground, reconciliation of the past, and mutual creation of agreements upon the future. The overlapping area is also the characterization of the world after the social movement has taken its impact – it is integrated into the dominant culture. The success of a social movement is thus measured by the changes it incurs, which is in turn represented by the area of the overlap. Two factors affect this area: the size of the social movement’s circle and the extent to which they collide together.


The overlap of two sphere; symbolically representing change. 


The size of the social movement can be defined as the strength or weight of the argument that it issues against the traditional landscape. This strength characterizes the logic, cohesiveness, and source of authority for the movement’s claims – a crucial factor to the success of any movement. Greek rhetoric theory provides a method to which the size of the movement’s cultural sphere can be characterized and analyzed. Greek rhetoricians propose the three modes of persuasion as logos, pathos, and ethos. Within a movement, each mode respectively serves to strengthen the rationality of the cause, the unity of members, and the authority leveraged to make a claim against an issue.

The logos of a social movement is the rationality of its argument. In the sense of the cultural sphere, the logos is the appeal to the rationality of opponents. Its effectiveness is increased by finding areas of common reasoning between both spheres and is decreased by factors which may lead to the dismissal of the group’s stance on the issues, such as overt radicalization and making arguments which do not resonate with the dominant sphere.

The pathos of a social movement applies among its membership, it characterizes the extent of unity and cohesion among the members and between the leaders of the movement. Its effectiveness is increased by strong community networks and mutually-agreed upon missions among the activists. It is decreased by apathy of members towards each other and by leaders acting unilaterally, which may lead to splintering groups which secede from the original movement.

The ethos of a social movement is the authority it possesses to change the dominant cultural sphere. This is where a movement derives the righteousness of its mission. Its effectiveness is increased when a social movement draws authority from a source commonly recognized by both spheres and also by the belief of members in the success of their cause. It is closely related to logos, but where as a logos refers to the source of an argument, the ethos refers to the source of authority which the movement uses to present the argument.

A cultural sphere possesses greater force to rival the traditional culture it must try to change when all three forms of appeals are effectively utilized. However there lies a final factor, known as relevance, which also affects the area of overlap. In the Collision Model, relevance is the distance which the two spheres collide together. Relevancy is the extent to which the issues of the cultural sphere are in the minds of the population. Relevancy is enriched by vocal demonstrations, charismatic leaders, and recognition by media sources.  Relevancy is likewise diminished by pressing dangers and crises which draw away attention from issues that may not be imminently vital to survival, such as war and economic down turn. It may also be reduced by the presence of other, more relevant movements which garner the majority of attention. Without relevancy, even a movement with a strong argument for change will be unable to capture the attention of the general public because the argument will never be heard.

Under the Collision Model, movements with relatively little impacts or deemed unsuccessful suffer deficiencies in the strength of their argument or the relevancy of their issues and the resulting mergence, if any occurs, is insignificant and fails to meet the expectations of the movement or make a lasting impact upon the psyche of the hegemony. Likewise, an argument with an irrefutable argument and strong public presence has the potential to create great amounts of permanent political change.  The construction of the Civil Rights Movement represents a brilliant conglomeration of argument and relevancy and thus will serve as the model for the discussion on a successful instance of collision.

The Civil Rights Odyssey

The words of Langston Hughes are just one of the few verses which make up the epic of the Civil Rights narrative. In the vein of the Greek classics, the struggle of Black Americans amounts to nothing less than a journey of hardship and pain through the trials of injustice. The discussion of the epic form relates best to the last speech given by Martin Luther King Jr. in the last days of his life. On April 3rd, 1968, King delivered a speech titled I Have Been To The Mountaintop in the heart of the South at Memphis, Tennessee. As the de facto face of the Civil Rights Movement, King frames the Civil Rights Movement in the epic form in his last address to the people he represented as the Epic Hero. King weaves a narrative which takes a retrospective look upon his role in the movement, an encapsulation of the Civil Rights saga. The fact that King’s speech contains the descriptions of his lifetime work and the context of major Civil Rights events gives it significance as the summary of the movement’s cultural sphere. The interpretation of King’s rhetoric in this discussion is largely accredited to Bethany Keeley’s I May Not Get There With You: “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” as Epic Discourse  in which she details the epic-like characteristics of King’s speech and the three main traditions which it draws from. Keeley asserts that the cultural sphere of the Civil Rights Movement draws from three main strands of tradition: the American Civil, the African, and the Biblical. Each of these traditions  correspond to and characterize the facets of Greek argument which make up the cultural sphere (Keeley). Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have Been To The Mountaintop carries the full weight of each of these traditions within his speech and an examination of his rhetoric reveals the force of the movement’s argument and the relevancy of the issues at hand. The Mountaintop speech will thus be the basis for the discussion on the success of the Civil Rights movement through the lens of the Collision Model I have proposed above.


Martin Luther King (https://gmk10.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/kingphoto.jpg)


We Are Determined To Be People

The American psyche perhaps holds nothing more sacred than the idea of freedom and liberty. The establishment of the nation under the foundations of the enlightenment ideals can still be seen today in the rhetoric of modern politicians. Nearly every American child has spoken the words “With Liberty and Justice For All” since the inception of the nation , thus the idea of freedom and equality has been imbedded in the psyche of every generation. The American Civil tradition thus describes the liberty-centric culture surrounding the Founding Fathers and their documents such as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The African American Civil Rights Movement at its core is composed of this tradition; evidenced when King emphasizes that the “great wells of democracy … were dug deep by the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution” (King). An America which worshipped the ideals of Jefferson’s words “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (Independence) could not possibly reject the argument of the Civil Rights sphere without refuting their own reasons for entering the Korean War in the decade beforehand and the Vietnam War concurrently. This denial of the founding rights of the nation to its citizens was an incredible argument against the policies of segregation, a policy left undefended by the overturning of the “separate but equal” doctrine. Such direct oppositions to the principles of liberty could not be defended by traditional legal doctrine, such as in the case of black suffrage after the Thirteenth Amendment. Many opponents passed subversive laws which attacked the literacy and economic status of African Americans in order to suppress their new voting rights. A parallel situation thus arose in the 1960s when opponents of the movement could no longer argue their case in the legal sense while still appearing to be on the side of freedom and liberty.


The Founding Fathers signing the Declaration of Independence (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/15/Declaration_independence.jpg)


The Civil Rights movement draws the logic and rationality of its argument by tapping into the core of America, an exclamation that each man, regardless of color, has the right to draw from American freedom and become “people too.” This is the logos of the movement’s argument, the appeal to the innate American psyche among all citizens of and migrants to the United States which asserts egalitarian and liberty-centric principles in the relationship between law and the citizen.

Brothers and Sisters

“… I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering” (King).


A mural representing the Underground Railroad by Artist Hale Woodruff. (http://mediad.publicbroadcasting.net/p/shared/npr/styles/x_large/nprshared/201512/459253213.jpg)

Perhaps the most distinct aspects of the Civil Rights culture finds their source from the African Tradition – a culture which developed from its roots in Africa and later appropriated in the context of slavery into the modern form. The pressures of separation, harsh masters, and oppression fashioned a culture which used familial terms, call-and-response communication, and lyrical communication in order to foster a common bond among slaves – a culture which extends its influence even today. These aspects of the African tradition are significant in contributing to the pathos of the Civil Rights sphere because the reinforcement of common unity was reinforced every day through basic interactions among activists.

Within the Mountaintop speech, King displays the full array of the African tradition not only in his rhetoric but also through his interaction with the crowd itself. King’s use of kinship terms to refer to his  audience is a staple of the African American culture derived from biblical sources – a behavior which enforces the community of the movement (Keeley).Though the crowd interrupts the beginning of his anaphoric statements, King does not stop speaking when the audience applauds or vocally responds to his words, instead he increases his own vocal energy and volume, “ If I had sneezed (Yes), … If I had sneezed [Applause],” and thus king harnesses the crowd’s reaffirmations to heighten the energy of his own speech. This in turn creates an effect of a singular voice which speaks out against the oppressions and injustices of the era, a unity of speech based upon the emotions response of the participants.

King’s rhetoric also involved the use of familial nouns create a personal dynamic among members that promoted connectivity and enriched the equality of all activists by creating a network of “brothers and sisters.” Aside from the familial dynamic, the Mountaintop speech encapsulated the songs and phrases of the Slavery Era, appealing to the activists’s common background through symbolic lyrical expression.

The Civil Rights movement taps into the common ancestry of its members to define a culture with robust bonds that mimic those of a large extended family, creating a strong pathos of unity reinforced by the freedom-centric rhetoric of slave culture.

God’s Will

The opening of the Mountaintop speech begins with a conversation between King and God, representing King’s prophet-like image within the Civil Rights Movement. In his rhetoric, King derives not only his authority but the mandate of the entire movement upon the power of divinity and the Bible (Taylor). King opens his speech with an allusion to the Exodus from Egypt, a book of the Bible centered around the freedom of slaves from captivity. This introduction opens a realm of comparison between the exodus and the Civil Rights Movement by framing the African American community as god’s chosen people upon a righteous mission. King’s use of phrases such as “I’ve been to the mountaintop” and “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord” are not only prophetic in nature but also convey a sense of religious righteousness and eventuality in success. The confidence in the divinely ordained mission of the movement served as a basis for a self-assured authority – an authority that was also particularly effective in America in the 60’s due to the rise of the New Right movement that embraced conservatism and religion as a response against Civil Rights itself. The fact that the social movement utilized the Bible as the basis for the authority of their argument meant that the opponents of the Civil Rights movement thus could not readily refute their basis for authority in good faith when these opponents were largely Christian themselves. The rhetoric of the Civil Rights movement not only produced a belief that the movement itself was righteous but that the movement would succeed in eventuality, as preordained by god.

Now We’re Going To March Again…

The final analysis of the Civil Rights sphere involves the relevancy of its issues, undoubtedly the most obvious component of the process of change it wrought upon the American landscape. The lead-up of events to King’s speech is summarized by the Reverend himself as he details the history of the movement in a series of anaphoric statements. He describes the Ride of Freedom, the Albany Movement, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the “I Have a Dream” Speech, the March of Selma, and ultimately the speech at Memphis itself. These events garnered massive media attention – it captivated and polarized the nation. The rise of the counter-culture movement during the 60’s suppressed the war-time focus that usually occurs during times of war and thus the Civil Rights Movement was able to garner large amounts of public traction. There was little possibility for citizens of the dominant culture to ignore the movement or possess apathy towards it.

The financial pressure of the black community among the businesses created another focal point of relevancy through an economic lens, through the encouragement of “bank-ins” and “insurance-ins” and selective choice of business by King himself. This meant no businesses could ignore the power of the black dollar without fear of repercussions due to such vocal, active leadership. Above nearly all other social movements, the Civil Rights Movement found itself the most relevant in its era of activism and counter-culture.

When Worlds Collide

In order to better qualify change, Arendt’s idea of natality in action is a point necessary to the discussion. When an individual acts for the purpose of the social movement, his efforts are described as “action.” This action exists in the public sphere and utilizes argument in order to create a lasting change that outlasts the temporary existence of any one individual. This action drives the process of change, which itself is a process derived from natality (Arendt). When individuals seek to change the dominant sphere, they aspire a collision which results in the birth of a new sphere that possesses the qualities of both. Thus when the activists of the Civil Rights movement undertook action in order to spark a change, they restructured the world they inhabited. When a collision occurs, the new sphere becomes common to all who inhabit it.

It is highly unlikely that any movement will succeed in integrating its entire agenda in the process of changing the dominant sphere because the collision of social spheres and inspiring change is not one that proceeds to completion but one which comes to a state of equilibrium. This leaves a significant area of the social movement which never overlaps or is never addressed – this area of the social sphere represents the issues that remain unaddressed and questions which remain unanswered. Despite the legislative victories of the Civil Rights movement, many believe that the private attitudes and values of America remain negative towards African Americans – such ideas of inherent discrimination remain unaddressed and thus they will continue to be persistent in the identity of America, as evidenced by the resurgence of public demonstrations in the aftermath of the shootings of many young African Americans today.

In reflecting upon the Collision Model, the idea that a social movement forms and exists outside of the cultural sphere is not a perfect representation of the dynamics of reality. As addressed by Warner in Publics and Counterpublics, the rise of counterpublics in response to publics mirrors the creation of a social movement against that of the dominant sphere. However Warner attributes the emergence of a counter public movement to lie within the dominant sphere – asserting that social movements do not form from a foreign vacuum but are born from ideas within the dominant sphere itself (Warner). As with any simplified representation of a complex process, the Collision Model will suffer some deficiencies yet it is also important to note that the presence of two separate spheres still proves accurate when a particular issue creates a duality between citizens. Therefore a citizen must choose to either stay rooted in the dominant cultural sphere or place themselves outside and into the social movement’s boundaries.

… And We’ve Got To March Again

The Collision Model however succeeds in capturing the many lessons which can be garnered from the Civil Rights movement. The fact that many modern movements aspire to the fervor of the 60s is justified by the movement’s ability to drive such a powerful argument with unprecedented relevance. Today many movements seem too decentralized to issue a solid, coherent argument – many modern movements such as #Occupy have muddled hierarchies of organization and thus do not produce clear, unified demands within their cultural sphere. The rise of mass media is paradoxical to relevancy – it has allowed many more groups to have access to air time and in turn allows citizens to access information readily, yet it has also bred an apathy towards movements because the citizen has a choice in viewing only outlets that agree with his or her views. This possibility of extended choice allows individuals to turn off outlets which they may disagree with and enter an echo chamber of ideas which cuts off access to the public sphere because they are no longer open to argument. Despite these changes to the dominant cultural landscape since the 60s, many lessons can still be learned from the Civil Rights Movement.

  1. The basis of authority and logic should be shared between the movement and the dominant sphere.
  2. Leaders must act cohesively in order to focus the message of the social movement.
  3. Activists are agents of change – when each member believes that their mission is eventual and will make a permanent impact, the movement is solidifies.
  4. Relevancy should be tackled economically – financial pressures garner attention.

These lessons remain vital to the turmoil of the modern world.  It is important to acknowledge that when access to the public sphere and argument are cut off from any group, violence takes its place. Therefore any social movement which feels that it cannot communicate is more prone to radical acts because no other viable option is available. By understanding the success of relatively peaceful social movements and understanding the dynamics of change, the world can progress in enriching political and social freedom for all.

Works Cited

Hughes, Langston. “Let America Be America Again.” Poets.org. N.p., 14 May 1997. Web. 6 Dec. 2015

Arendt, Hannah, and Margaret Canovan. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998. Print.

Keeley, Bethany. “I May Not Get There With You: “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” as Epic Discourse.” Southern Communication Journal 73.4 (2008): 280-94. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.

King, Dr. Martin L. “”I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” Mason Temple, Memphis, TN. 3 Apr. 1968. American Rhetoric Top 100 Speeches. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.

Independence Hall Association. “The Declaration of Independence.” Ushistory.org. N.p., 4 July 1995. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.

Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone, 2005. Print.

Taylor, Robert Joseph, Linda Marie Chatters, and Jeff Levin. Religion in the Lives of African Americans Social, Psychological, and Health Perspectives. Minneapolis: Sage Publications, 2003. Print.