This month, two anniversaries seem to harmonize with one another. Fifty years ago, civil-rights protestors marching from Selma to Montgomery were rallying and singing and sometimes bleeding and dying for freedom. And 30 years ago, a feel-good anthem sung by rock stars to fight African hunger was climbing the charts. Moving from “We Shall Overcome” in 1965 to “We Are the World” in 1985 highlights African-Americans’ miraculous leap forward in those two decades.
But the We-are-the-Worlding of protest also reflects a decline from a high-stakes politics of seriousness to a politics frequently fraught with celebrity-inflected idiocy and posturing. In 1965, the Reverend Martin Luther King called on priests, ministers, and rabbis for moral authority. Today, activists yearn for Brangelina’s celebrity super-couple glamour infusion.
Amid many momentous anti-segregation protests, Selma framed the moral issue starkly. Televised images of deputized white hooligans beating nonviolent blacks and whites brought Southern oppression into American living rooms. By mid-March, President Lyndon Johnson had launched the Voting Rights Act to combat Southern voter harassment by singling out jurisdictions where fewer than half the citizens voted.
Such targeting ended decades of redneck whack-a-mole: every time blacks had circumvented an obstacle to voter registration, a new one popped up. Johnson was not exaggerating when he said on March 15, 1965, “At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.”
More like the Minutemen’s moment than the South’s surrender, Selma belongs to the great American tradition of popular protest. It ranks with Sons of Liberty drowning crates of Brits’ favorite brew at the Boston Tea Party, suffragettes marching in flouncy dresses demanding the vote, temperance puritans trashing saloons, pitchfork Populist farmers denouncing Big Business, hungry war veterans becoming a Bonus army, and overall-clad workers sitting down to strike. We like to think of American democracy as orderly citizens voting, presidents leading, members of Congress legislating, and judges judging. But mass mobilization has shaped American history too, as individuals, willing to sacrifice, advanced their cause together.
In March 1985, 20 years after Selma, and weeks after Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration, America was better, the cause more distant, the actions much safer. Millions of black Americans were joining the country’s prosperous, mass middle class and upper class. The Voting Rights Act was yielding thousands of African-American mayors and city councilors, state legislators and members of Congress.
Things in America were so good in 1985 that the singer-activist Harry Belafonte now enlisted black celebrities to target African hunger. Belafonte, most famous for singing “Day-O,” had entertained more than 10,000 marchers outside Montgomery on March 24, 1965, with Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Sammy Davis, Jr., and others. Now, Lionel Ritchie and Michael Jackson wrote a song for black and white rock ‘n’ roll royalty to sing. Performers included Tina Turner, Billy Joel, Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Geldof, Willie Nelson, Diana Ross, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Bette Midler, and 5 more Jacksons.
By April, “We are the World” became America’s number-one hit. The popular video encouraged viewers to play Name That Celebrity in a rhythmically bobbing sea of famous faces, while revealing the seemingly spontaneous, “private” glances, handclasps, and hugs these pop music demigods exchanged —with the cameras rolling.
That summer, “Live Aid” featured more celebs performing simultaneously in London and Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, the folkie Joan Baez tried resurrecting the Sixties, saying: “Good morning, children of the ‘80’s. This is your Woodstock and it’s long overdue.”
“I’m glad to be helping the hungry and having a good time,” said one fan. This $60 million initiative inspired many imitators, including Willie Nelson’s “Farm Aid” and “Hands Across America,” for America’s homeless, led by Kenny Rogers and the not-yet-disgraced Bill Cosby and Pete Rose.
Helping starving Africans is a noble cause. But in the celebrity stratosphere, self-righteousness and self-aggrandizement, selflessness and self-promotion, began to blur. Such efforts didn’t compare to the ‘60’s’ muscular activism. These productions of the ‘80’s were more acts of consumption, entertaining trifles genuflecting at the altar of celebrity worship, with a dash of social consciousness added for effect.
For fans, the “good time” often upstaged the cause. For celebrities, the billions of dollars they earned collectively dwarfed the pittance most doled out to charities. As a result, these initiatives seemed like putting another Reaganite Band-Aid on problems. “We can end hunger,” one Live Aid ad intoned, “This is the moment, and we are the generation that can do it.”
Yet the problems persisted. Paint-by-numbers rock ‘n’ roll activism dissipated energy and created artificial feelings of self-satisfaction that squelched more serious initiatives. We had progressed, from Jim Crow throughout the South to black officeholders North and South. But we had declined, from Martin Luther King enduring arrests to Lionel Ritchie in headphones.
“We are the World” taught the world that buying the right record was enough to change the world. It anticipated today’s slacktivism, wherein people forward political articles or messages to like-minded friends—or simply “like” their virtual friends’ political message on Facebook—then call it a day. Such add-water-and-stir politics makes people feel so good they did something few bother doing more.
Today, we live that dual legacy. Recently, we have experienced serious demonstrations, from Left and Right, especially Ferguson’s anti-police protests and New York’s Ferguson-inspired anti-Mayor Di Blasio police protests. But celebridiocy overwhelms our politics; the fame game trumps serious political activism. And too many seek a fasten-your-seat-belt protest politics, eschewing sacrifice for safety—epitomized by the spoiled college students and law students who demanded deferrals or free-passes from finals last semester so they could protest the Ferguson violence without risking their GPAs.
We are lucky not to live in as flawed an America as the Selma Protestors did. But because we don’t yet live in the perfect America they dreamed of, we still need a tradition of rigorous, vigorous, noble, self-sacrificing, non-star-f**king protest.