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A Psychological View on the Fight for Rights

The 1960s was a time known for its constant conflict and social mobilization. What many people don’t know is that social sciences play a significant role in constructing a history of the Civil Rights movement.

Over the course of the 1960s, life in the United States consisted of epidemics of racism, violence, and social change. Fast forward, and one can see that millions of Americans face the same conditions today. Throughout the past few years, numerous social movements have actively taken course – the Black Lives Matter protests, LGBTQ rights, Women’s March, and more. These events work to change policies and the view of the people. The concept of sociology applies to our everyday lives, and to the lives of others as well.

Psychology is the study of behavior and mental processes; it can explain the way people think and how they tend to behave in certain situations. As one may know, the Civil Rights Movement was the mass struggle and protest for equal rights of African-Americans. Certain components within sociology were keenly evident during this period – such as measures of psychological strength, the effect of movement leaders, and racial superiority. These factors shed light on the minds of those who inspired change, and who helped move the world view beyond simply black and white.

no hate
Photo by T. Chick McClure on Unsplash

In the midst of so much oppression, people relied on the power of hope. Famous psychologist Charles Snyder describes this concept in his “Hope Theory”, which states that people with hope tend to have both the will and the strategies necessary to achieve their goals (1). Despite injuries that physically hurt them, protesters relied on faith as their strength to keep fighting. African-Americans remained optimistic during this period of despair and found it imperative to seek a course of action (1). A psychological reliance on hope, ultimately, is the most successful factor of the entire movement. Music played the role as a morale booster during the Civil Rights Movement. African-American folk music and gospel hymns were used as motivation during extensive marches, “for psychological strength against harassment and brutality” (2). Psychologically, music has the ability to reduce tension and anxiety. Musicians would distribute their songs to activists, who could, in turn, increase the confidence of demonstrators. Nevertheless, the successful revolution was undeniably the result of optimistic and melodic minds.

Social movement theories have been well researched but there is one critical component that deserves more attention: the participants. The leaders of these protests have a tremendous impact on the people around them. All the different leaders of the Civil Rights Movement share one trait in common – they have demonstrated the “Snowball Effect” (3). The Snowball Effect is the psychological process that starts from an initial event of small significance, that eventually builds upon itself, and causes more significant events. This concept is evident through the example of Rosa Parks. By one day refusing to give her seat up for a white man, she sparked a boycott of the public transport system. People were inspired and soon carried out their own acts of civil disobedience. As a prominent figure of the movement, she highlighted and was fundamentally responsible for the eradication of Jim Crow Laws (3). Masses of society often seek for a person to speak out. In the course of this movement, many leaders found the courage to do so and acted as the voice of the people.  As they helped end social injustice, the Civil Rights leaders not only changed the way society thought but also changed the course of society for the better.

While social factors indeed had a positive impact on the success of the riots, there were negative influences as well. Before Rosa Parks, there was Claudette Colvin. As just a fifteen-year-old, Colvin refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger… nine months before Parks did. “The NAACP had been searching for a test case to argue against segregation”, but alas the symbolic role was handed to Rosa Parks (4). Supposedly, the group did not think a young teenager would be reliable. Also, Colvin became pregnant, yet unwed, a few months later, and the NAACP also saw that as a reason for her to not lead the movement. Colvin has also stated that she believes her darker skin and social class played a factor as well (4). Touching on the subject of the Social Norms Theory (behavior is influenced by misperceptions of how our peers think and act), one can see that the NAACP sought to find a leader who they thought the people would follow (5). But by stripping Claudette Colvin of her recognition, the group revealed elements of discrimination … in a movement fighting against discrimination. In an effort to unite citizens for a common cause, they turned away a girl judged by her age, past, and complexion. Ultimately, their view towards Rosa Parks as being the more “morally clean” one still led to success, but it remains a mystery on how many “unsung heroes” remain due to the Civil Rights Movement.

Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, many preconceived notions of African-Americans were caused by the psychological development of prejudice. The bias circulated amongst the minds of white people, but eventually formulated among African Americans as well, causing them to have feelings of inferiority starting at a young age. Likewise, the psychological state of mind people had also affected them physically. A major portion of the black population began to develop chronic diseases and illness during the course of conflict (6). The deteriorating mindset of many African-Americans had diminished their strength to continue fighting for their rights. Martin Luther King Jr. explained that few knew or understood the devastating effects Jim Crow Laws had on black people across the United States and began to raise awareness of psychologists. (7). This examination of the science of discrimination helped to inform many and offered further credibility to the national civil rights movement (7).

A deeper understanding of sociology gathered support for the cause and furthered the success of the movement. Overall, the study of collective behavior proves that society tends to encourage both mobilization and exploitation. The Civil Rights Movement largely bases its success on social elements and contributed psychological insights that still remain relevant today.

References & Footnotes

(1) Watson, Peter. Psychology and Race. Reprint ed. N.p.: Routledge, 2017. Print.

(2) “Music in the Civil Rights Movement.” The Library of Congress. The American Folklife Center in Collaboration with Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2017.

(3) McCambridge, Reilly. “Rosa Parks: Civil Rights Pioneer.” NewsActivist. N.p., 16 Mar. 2014. Web. 15 Nov. 2017.

(4) Kettler, Sara. “Black History Unsung Heroes: Claudette Colvin.” Biography. A&E Networks Television, 2 Feb. 2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2017.

(5) Maccoby, Michael. “Why People Follow the Leader: The Power of Transference.” Harvard Business Review. N.p., Sept. 2004. Web. 15 Nov. 2017.

(6) “Physiological & Psychological Impact of Racism and Discrimination for African-Americans.” American Psychological Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2017.

(7) Hargrove, Stephanie, and Deonte Williams. “Psychology’s Contribution to the Development of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.” American Psychological Association. N.p., Sept. 2014. Web. 16 Nov. 2017.

Photo by Kamesh Vedula on Unsplash


2 comments on “A Psychological View on the Fight for Rights

  1. Kripaa Shetty

    Great article Nikki… Good to read your reference to the Hope Theory !

    Liked by 1 person

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