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OWS and the Civil Rights Movement

HERB BOYD Special to the AmNews | 11/23/2011, 2:28 p.m.

Watching students peacefully protesting at the University of California at Davis recently and being repeatedly assaulted by a police officer with pepper spray brought back memories of the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, it was reminiscent of the training sessions many students had to endure as members of Freedom Summer in 1964 before departing for the menacing danger of Mississippi.

But this was no training session last week on the university campus. The spraying of pepper on a ring of students was as brutal and violent as the German shepherd dogs, water hoses and billy clubs handled by racist cops in Alabama and their attack on nonviolent protesters.

What the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) participants must learn is that their action is by no means unique or original. Any veteran of the movement against the war in Vietnam, the Free Speech Movement, or labor strikes, and certainly the Civil Rights Movement can recite chapter and verse on the similarities among the activities. The only difference may be in the results, since the Occupy activists do not have the precisely stated objectives of the prior movements.

That may be a good thing or a bad thing. But they shouldn't ignore what has transpired many times in the past when marchers and protesters assembled to voice their dissent about conditions.

One veteran of the sixties said he was saddened to learn how few of the young Occupy people knew anything about the Civil Rights Movement. "I could have been talking about the Civil War for many of them," he lamented.

There are many valuable lessons to be distilled from the Civil Rights Movement that would help the Occupy activists, particularly if the movement isn't a "flash in the pan," as some social scientists believe.

While the 1 percent versus the 99 percent is a nice ratio pointing out the disparity, and "If you want to end the deficit, end the war and tax rich," is a nice catchphrase, the Occupy movement may need a more tangible, realistic goal in order to truly mark its place in the nation's annals along with the Free Speech Movement, the anti-war marches and the Civil Rights Movement.

Each of these unforgettable moments in American history left an indelible mark on society and brought about changes that still resonate today.

Just one political goal-one major accomplishment-may be enough to give the Occupy denizens a sense of historical permanence; their own special place in the ages.

Having a few martyrs has always been an easy, but dreadful way to obtain lasting remembrance, i.e. Kent State, Jackson State or Orangeburg, to say nothing of the hundreds of fallen comrades during the Civil Rights Movement.

But nothing succeeds like success. And one way to gather that everlasting claim is to stake out a realistic target and focus all the forces available. What the students did recently at Baruch College is a step in the right direction.

Occupying the college and protesting the tuition hikes proposed by the Board of Trustees is similar to what African American students did in order to get their demand of Black Studies in the curriculum.

Protesting a tuition hike may be a minor concern when compared to larger issues facing the majority of people in this country, but at least it's concentrated on a local issue of importance to a great number of students, and it could result in change, if the protesting can be sustained.

And sustaining a movement is half the battle. The victories of the Civil Rights Movement did not come in one year, and the Occupy activists have only been on the ramparts but a few months. The real test may arrive with the first blizzard-though pepper spray is indicative enough that in so many respects it's already winter in America.

On to the Pentagon.