Where Are Modern Civil Rights Leaders?

By Owen Andersen

Etched into the memory of the Civil Rights Movement, leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Angela Davis, and Malcolm X championed varying modes of protest at the forefront of social justice in the United States. Despite the valiance and veneration of these Civil Rights idols, American social movements of the past decade have lacked individual figures of the same caliber, instead promoting the decentralization of organizations, leading to the question: where are modern US Civil Rights leaders?

Premenintly, Black Lives Matter (BLM) stands as the penultimate decentralized movement. Sparking in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, killer of Trayvon Martin, BLM has redefined the protest landscape, now serving as the largest social movement in US history (Brookings.edu). From its inception, BLM has remained a decentralized movement, branding itself as a “member-led global network” with an emphasis on employing “local power” in the fight against systemic violence and oppression of Black communities (BLM).

BLM’s rapid expansion and power dispersal can be primarily attributed to social media, a key pillar of modern social movements. For today’s causes, social media provides accessibility and engagement on an international level. Globalizing protestor’s audience allows for systemic and distinctly simultaneous action compared to the domino effect nature of previous centuries’ protests. With such intense interconnectivity, the ability to possess a singular leader to produce a singular message decreases; why need one mouthpiece when everybody can be one? Besides exposure, social media also opens doors for funding, allowing movements to expand, market, and lobby more effectively, immersing modern activism deeper into the political landscape.

Social media (and to a greater extent the internet at large) has also changed what it means to protest. For example, the use and medium of showing solidarity has been significantly expanded—an act as simple as changing a profile picture or posting on Instagram is, by many, considered supporting a cause. The introduction of arguably low commitment activism has not only allowed movement expansion, but the diaspora of influence; it’s opened up the leadership pool. Theoretically, anybody who posts about a topic they care about can be placed in its vanguard by the pseudo-Darwinist popular sovereignty of the internet. So, where once there was a relatively small collection of individuals on the frontlines of physical protest, there’s now an expansive collage of people not necessarily leading on-the-ground protest, but still in the center of discussion and online action.

On the other hand, many traditional protestors decry decentralizing demonstrations due to the broad, mob-like nature of such gargantuan organizations. Professor Clayborne Carter, a leading expert on Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s teachings, detracts the efficacy of decentralized protest, citing the lack of an “articulate spokesperson” as a catalyst for a movement to “lose control of its messaging” (news.stanford.edu). The spiraling of a disorganized protest can be observed in events like the Arab Spring, an early 2010s leaderless movement that originally stood against government corruption that rapidly devolved into violence and downright rebellion. A distinctly American example is QAnon, a decentralized, conspiracy group responsible for the January 6th insurrection. However, both events share a common symptom: poor digital literacy (understanding, evaluating, and communicating information online). At the time of the Arab Spring, only about 30% of the Arab world had internet access (literacy.ala.org) and, with QAnon, many members are on the older side, lacking the native e-fluency of new generations.

Additionally, with rising education rates and infinite information access, the need for singular, succinct leadership deflates. In 1960, the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, only 7.7% of the American population boasted a college degree or higher; a high school diploma, 41.1%, according to the US Census Bureau. Conversely, the America of 2022 had a college degree percentage of 37.7% and a High School diploma rate of 91..2% (Statista). Reasonably, modern Americans no longer need to be spoken for; today’s protestors have the information access necessary to educate and express themselves.

Though we currently lack decisive figure heads of present social movements, the decentralization of protests is not a detriment to activism, but an evolution. At this point, the only limit to self-educating, organizing, and protesting is personal drive—anybody could take part in activism. So, where are modern civil rights leaders? Everywhere.