Dreams of Union, Days of Conflict: Communicating Social Justice and Civil Rights Memory in the Age of Barack Obama

by Kirt Wilson

Associate Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences, Penn State University

A Preliminary Note from Jeremy Cox, Assistant Director of CIVCM:

On November 11, 2016, at the Marriott Downtown in Philadelphia, Dr. Kirt Wilson delivered his Carroll C. Arnold Distinguished Lecture to a capacity crowd of communication scholars. Over the next forty-five minutes Dr. Wilson challenged his audience to consider contemporary perceptions of race relations between white and black American within the context of public memory of the civil rights movement. His speech was moving, evocative, and challenging—more so given the ambiguities of the political climate in which he spoke. Contra expert opinion and conventional wisdom, Donald Trump had just been elected the nation’s forty-fifth president, a fact not lost on those attendance. Mingled cries of shock and lamentation echoed through the hallways of the National Communication Association Convention no less than they did in cities and towns across the country.

I remember vividly that many in attendance hoped for a message that would make sense of—or even provide deliverance from—the anxieties of the present. Stephen Hartnett joked as much as he made his introductions, remarking sardonically, “Kirt Wilson is here to save your soul.” What Dr. Wilson offered instead was a sobering reminder that the fears of many in attendance were rooted as much in a willful forgetting of the past as they were current exigencies. It was, to me at least, a devastating performance of critical scholarship combined with an intensely humanistic attunement to the nation’s troubled history.

We are, Dr. Wilson contends, constrained in our understanding of race relations by our shared memories of the Civil Rights movement. As these events have undergone reinterpretation from “a social movement that once divided the country” into “an important part of the nation’s symbolic and material economies,” they have become, for better or worse, touchstones against which the nation’s racial progress is judged. The “success” of the civil rights movement has been transformed into an American story of triumph over adversity, now thankfully relegated to the past (where many would prefer such matters remain). Such a framework necessarily focuses on but part of the story, thus eliding uncomfortable truths about ongoing injustices.

In light of this year’s Constitution Day theme, we might consider how commonly held assumptions about the nation’s history with slavery similarly inform our oftentimes myopic views of race in America. How might the popular interpretation of the Thirteenth Amendment as a “historical” document constrain our understanding of current systems of racial oppression and/or unfree labor? Dr. Wilson does not shy away from claiming, “slavery is not confined to the past; these conditions can and do continue.” Neither should we.

At this point, anything else I write will only delay from what you should be doing—reading Kirt Wilson’s brilliant, trenchant analysis of America’s ongoing struggle with its past. I therefore invite you to watch (or read) a truly important statement from one of the communication discipline’s most important voices.

To Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WtEBKqcdzOw

To Read: https://www.natcom.org/sites/default/files/annual-convention/NCA_Convention_Video_Archive_2016_Arnold_Lecture.pdf