Freedom has never been bestowed from above, but has been won from struggle from below. "Freedom" has never been "free." There have been victories and disappointments, successes and failures, but there can be no doubt that by testing the limits of democracy, the African American struggle has profoundly altered the meaning of freedom for all Americans. In discussing the student sit-ins, the civil rights organizer Fannie Lou Hamer noted, "By and large, this feeling that they have a destined date with freedom was not limited to a drive for personal freedom, or even freedom for the Negro in the South. Repeatedly, it was emphasized that the movement was concerned with the moral implications of racial discrimination for the 'whole world' and the 'human race.' " The black freedom movement's successful desegregation efforts produced the context for the 1965 liberalization of the immigration laws, which were previously based on race. It helped to create a model and process for legislation of the expanded rights of senior citizens, women, tenants, the disabled, Latinos, American Indians, Asian Americans, and others.
The Civil Rights Movement permitted African Americans to perceive themselves as real actors in their own living history. The boundaries of what whites had defined as blackness were radically reinterpreted and renegotiated. In short, many Americans came to recognize that "race" was not fixed, grounded in biological or genetic differences, or a natural division separating human beings into hierarchies; it was instead the logical special consequence of white structural power, white structural privilege, and anti-black prejudice. As black Americans challenged and overthrew these institutions of racial inequality and hierarchy, the actual relationship between black and white was sharply altered. This is a historical lesson, derived from our own recent experiences, that young Americans today must learn. Through their own direct action and civic participation, constructive, meaningful change that addresses social problems and unfairness is possible.
Unfortunately the world is still inherently unequal, so that the people's promise of true equality remains unfulfilled. However, it is this notion that movements can and will change the world we live in that makes the legacy of the Civil Rights movement so important. How can these tales of resistance and of mobilization for change inform the way that we move toward a more equitable world? What are the struggles that still exist? These are the questions that we hope this resource will raise in the classroom, where students, as they begin to own this history, become agents of change in their own lives, and the world in which they live.