Phi Beta Kappa scholar visits college, presents lecture on civil rights movement complexities

Courtesy of Lewis & Clark

On Feb. 15, Kenneth Andrews, a professor of Sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, gave a lecture at Lewis & Clark entitled “Lessons of the Civil Rights Movement and Black Freedom Struggle.” Andrews, who has studied activism and the Civil Rights Movement extensively, explored themes of protest and social change in his presentation.

Andrews attended Millsaps College for his undergraduate degree and Stony Brook University for his master’s. He worked at Harvard for six years and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for 20. He now teaches at Washington University in St. Louis, although he is currently on tour lecturing at several universities across the country. His most recent stop at LC yielded a valuable lesson on the history of the Civil Rights Movement for attendees. 

I had the honor of speaking with Andrews before he gave his lecture, and he gave me a great overview of what he planned to talk about.

“In many ways, the civil rights movement has become canonized,” Andrews said, “and there are official histories that are taught, but they often grossly oversimplify the depth and breadth of the struggle.”

Andrews’ lecture went over three important points of the movement in an attempt to return nuance to the narrative. His first point of emphasis was the amount of civil disobedience the movement employed. 

“They used disruption to really shake things up and put significant pressure on policy at the local and national level,” said Andrews. 

He also discussed the way the movement itself was organized and how its hierarchy was efficient. Andrews touched on how participants were inventive with their methods, and how much of an effect that had on the movement’s impact on the world.

“Secondly, the way (the movement) built organizational capacity in terms of leadership and networks to sustain itself and become an important force for change. The third is the way it developed cultural power by being strategically innovative and coming up with creative ideas that pushed the movement’s goals forward.” said Andrews. 

Andrews was particularly interested in how college students took on a large role in protest, and the large changes a “relatively powerless” group of people are able to make, especially considering his own experience with activism in college in the ’90s. 

“I was involved in different kinds of social movements in graduate school. There were efforts to unionize graduate students and anti-war protests,” he said. “I just became so fascinated by the history itself, especially the ways in which college students played such a central role in being a force for innovation and creativity.”

He connected the strengths of the Civil Rights Movement to how people can apply those techniques to issues of our current time. 

“Because we tell simplistic stories about the movement, we miss some of the ways in which you can actually form contemporary movements, either in terms of how we think about leadership or about what it is that protest has to do in order to really drive social change,” he said. “Ways in which people think about the movement today limit some of the ways that these methods are useful tools that can be borrowed and adapted.”

His lecture was eye-opening to how little is recalled about the intricacies of the Civil Rights Movement. 

“Movements are not just about heroic individuals or singular events,” Andrews said. “My first book was about the idea that there’s never an end point to movements; struggles to bring about justice and equity are constant.”

He also reflected on his role in the movement which was part of a communal effort. 

“It’s a collective enterprise. I don’t necessarily think about the impact of my own work but about it as being part of a conversation and effort with lots of other scholars to learn about how social movements work,” said Andrews.

This event was part of the larger celebration of Black History Month on campus. Other events included the off-campus trip to the Black Artists of Oregon exhibit at the Portland Art Museum on Feb. 3. Inclusion and Multicultural Engagement (IME) organized an activity centered around the exploration of healthy relationships entitled “Black Joy: Friends, Lovers & Other Relationships.

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