Liberal Education

Another Time for Freedom? Lessons from the Civil Rights Era for Today's Campuses

The summer of 1961 was the summer of the Freedom Rides. Interracial groups led by college students drew global attention as they traveled on intercity buses in the teeth of white-supremacist violence. The student leaders were torn between launching more such confrontational direct-action campaigns and registering millions of new voters. They met for tense debates at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee and decided to do some of both.1

Martin Luther King Jr. spent most of that summer far from the action. He was on Martha’s Vineyard, writing and preparing a philosophy course (from Plato to Nietzsche) that he planned to teach at his alma mater, Morehouse College.2 He also wrote a New York Times essay about the student activists. Published on September 10, 1961, “The Time for Freedom Has Come” describes the enormous educational benefits of making sacrifices as part of mass, youth-led social movements that seek to transform the whole society.3

Today, powerful youth-led social movements—Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, the campaigns against gun violence and climate change, and anti-abortion and other movements on the right—are again engaging substantial numbers of students. Although King would point to its educational value, this activism functions very differently from the operations of colleges and universities, which ought to strive for political impartiality, welcome diverse views on contested social issues, and protect the well-being of all students. Therefore, King’s article invites us to ask: What is the appropriate role for higher education at a time of social activism?

The lessons of sacrifice

King’s article is not about the civil rights movement as a whole, nor is it about the movement’s issues and strategies. Instead, his subject is the “college-bred, Ivy-League clad, youthful, articulate, and resolute” students of what we now call Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), those “Negro collegian[s]” who have “created the sit-ins and Freedom Rides.” He wants to tell the predominantly white and college-educated readers of the New York Times about the students he has met on the South’s black college campuses.

In King’s account, the student bodies of the HBCUs are unified in a political cause: “More than one college [has seen] the total student body involved in a walkout protest.” Back in the 1930s, King writes, a whole campus might be “alive with social thought,” but only a few students took action. By 1961, however, the “dynamism of both action and philosophical discussion” was universal. A youth movement that was both intellectual and activist had “engulfed the whole student body.”

The students, King says, are ready to sacrifice: “Theirs is total commitment to this goal of equality and dignity. And for this achievement they are prepared to pay the costs—whatever they are—in suffering and hardship as long as may be necessary.” He is “no longer surprised to meet attractive, stylishly dressed young girls whose charm and personality would grace a Junior Prom and to hear them declare in unmistakably sincere terms, ‘Dr. King, I am ready to die if I must.’ ”

Sacrifice is a troubling term. Why should people who are already suffering injustice be the ones to sacrifice to remedy the situation? Shouldn’t people with more power and status give something up? That is undoubtedly right, yet King and, before him, Mohandas K. Gandhi constantly called on their followers to sacrifice. Gandhi even defined satyagraha, or truth force (his basic concept), as “sacrifice of self.”4

Being willing to renounce something of value in public for an explicit public reason is a powerful tool of persuasion, useful both for influencing wavering minds and for motivating one’s own side. Because you bear the cost yourself, you are able to pay it—you don’t need anyone else’s resources. And because you absorb the suffering, you prevent a cycle of violence and revenge that almost never yields justice or peace. Nonviolence, King writes in his Times essay, “offers a unique weapon which, without firing a single bullet, disarms the adversary.”

As political theorist Danielle Allen has argued, sacrifice is intrinsic to democracy. Even the act of voting requires a sacrifice of time. Whenever people vote, one side loses, giving up what they wanted in return for making a collective decision. Even a policy as routine as controlling inflation by tolerating a 5 percent unemployment rate means deliberately costing millions of people the chance to work in the interest of collective prosperity.5 So, sacrifice is inevitable and always inequitable.

But sacrifice for one’s freedom and dignity can be its own reward. Gandhi held that “a life of sacrifice is the pinnacle of art and is full of true joy.”6 In the Indian independence movement, the prisons that held protesters were viewed as temples.7 Similarly, King described the laborers and domestic workers who boycotted Montgomery buses, saying that “they knew why they walked, and the knowledge was evident in the way they carried themselves. And as I watched them, I knew that there is nothing more majestic than the determined courage of individuals willing to suffer and sacrifice for their freedom and dignity.”8

One way to make a sacrifice rewarding is to do it with others. King emphasizes in his Times essay that all the students of an HBCU could face arrest. “It is not a solemn life, for all its seriousness,” King observes.

Another way is to celebrate success. Although the unfinished work of the civil rights movement is all too evident today, King could state in 1961 that “the victories of the past two years have been spectacular and considerable.”

King’s essay also underscores the learning and personal growth that occurs as a result of one’s “own direct sacrifice”: “The forging of priceless qualities of character is taking place daily as a high moral goal is pursued. . . . The movement therefore gives to its participants a double education—academic learning from books and classes, and life’s lessons from responsible participation in social action.” He even quips that a way to produce a “more mature, educated American, to compete successfully with the young people of other lands,” might be to imitate the experience of the civil rights movement, which is such an effective educator. Perhaps King hoped that prospective employers would look favorably on the graduates of black colleges who were deeply involved with the movement.

Self-sacrificial political action has never vanished, but it has recently become much more common for American youth and college students. In the fall of 2018, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life found that 22 percent of current, full-time college students had recently engaged in protests or other forms of offline activism.9 To walk in a march is not a huge sacrifice, but it is at least a modest one, and some students have been arrested, abused online, or—as in Charlottesville in August 2017—even killed as part of social movements.

When movements meet institutions

In the model of civic action that King describes, college students plug into national social movements that have leaders and organizations outside higher education. The students’ involvement is youth-driven: students recruit other students to participate. Recent research finds that recruitment often precedes commitment. People participate because a peer asks them to, and then they gain their ideals and strategies from the movement. For instance, sociologist Ziad Munson has found that many anti-abortion protesters do not start with strong opinions on the issue but are recruited into activist networks from which they derive their anti-abortion views.10

Like most participants in social movements, the students King describes in the Times essay have transformational goals. They do not aim to modify the policies and practices of existing institutions—such as their own colleges—but to rebuild or reconstitute the whole society. Student activists, King writes, are “seeking to save the soul of America. . . . One day historians will record this student movement as one of the most significant epics of our heritage.” Today, movements like Black Lives Matter and climate activism do not merely advocate specific policies but attempt to fundamentally transform society, from white supremacy to racial equity, or from carbon-dependence to global sustainability.

By contrast, colleges and universities—including the HBCUs of 1961—are institutions. As such, they are inevitably led by people who have extensive experience, who must therefore be older. Institutions can encourage youth voice and can change as a result of social movements. For instance, a range of curricular and policy reforms that promote greater racial equity and diversity can be traced back to the civil rights movement. But institutions will predictably resist more radical transformations. They are not movements; they are targets of movements.

The tension between movements and institutions is inevitable, but higher education has a particular commitment to ideological pluralism and debate. Although pure neutrality is impossible and a misleading ideal, colleges and universities must demonstrate a reasonable degree of impartiality about the contested issues of the day. As academic institutions, they value reflection and “organized skepticism.”11

When today’s colleges and universities go beyond classroom teaching to offer experiential civic education, a typical model involves supporting students to choose and define their own issues and to develop and implement plans of action—not signing them up for specific social movements that will demand sacrifice. Often, an institution’s recruitment takes the form of a general invitation to civic engagement, civic learning, or dialogue, not a call to join a movement.

Discourse and care

At no point in his 1961 article does King mention any role for college educators in the social movement. Perhaps he thought of a college as a place to learn challenging ideas from people who held advanced knowledge. As a Morehouse undergraduate, King learned about Gandhi from his faculty mentor, Benjamin Mays, who had traveled to India to meet Gandhi in 1936.12 When King returned to Morehouse in the early 1960s to teach, he saw his job as leading a seminar on texts from the history of philosophy.

Although King does not offer guidance for colleges in a time of social movement politics, institutions can play important roles.

First, higher education should promote free and critical discussion. That means not only protecting freedom of speech but endorsing, teaching, and modeling skills and habits of vigorous discussion and openness to diverse views. Vibrant discussion does not always come naturally to social movements, which often draw people of like mind. However, research on social movements shows that they are more likely to succeed when they encompass a variety of perspectives and beliefs and promote robust internal discussions within their own “free spaces,” such as the churches and union halls in the civil rights movement and the consciousness-raising circles in the women’s movement.13 Movements that tolerate narrow ranges of views typically fail. Colleges and universities are particularly well designed to teach and encourage open discussion within all settings, including social movements.

As Tufts University’s Nancy Thomas and Adam Gismondi advise in Inside Higher Ed, “Study, deliberate, study: don’t let students go down some rabbit hole of alternative facts or myopic analysis. Insist that students answer questions, like what do we know about this issue? Is what we know reliable? How will we fill knowledge gaps? And most importantly, what are all of the perspectives on this issue, including unpopular ones unrepresented in this group? ”14

Second, we know that social movement activists must take care of themselves—must heal, rest, reflect, and practice what Jesuits call cura personalis (care for the entire person). A cofounder of Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza, describes the importance of attending to her “emotional and mental health as if it is food, or water, or air.” As she writes for Complex, “If I am not committed to my own well-being, I worry that I will find that deep place, fall in, and not be able to emerge again.”15

Supporting students in self-care is an appropriate role for higher education. Thomas and her colleagues at Tisch College have found that academic institutions enhance civic participation better when they work on “social cohesion,” meaning a “sense of shared responsibility” for other people and the institution, and a “culture of caring” that works “across differences of social identity and political ideology.” That means offering students well-being programs and supporting, training, and setting expectations for staff as they interact with students—including commuter and nontraditional students—outside the classroom.16

A professor who leads our Social-Emotional Learning and Civic Engagement (SEL-CE) initiative at Tisch College and three students in the initiative have written that discussion and civic action inevitably create “dissonance and discomfort” if students have diverse backgrounds, identities, and opinions. Dissonance is a good thing, but it requires attention to the “social-emotional dimensions of teaching [and] learning.”17

By no means are all students drawn to all social movements. In the CIRCLE poll, 78 percent of current college students reported that they had not participated in a protest.18 (And to engage in one protest does not make you a participant in a social movement.) Educators should be attentive to the social, emotional, and civic-learning needs of their students who are uninvolved as well as those who are making sacrifices for social causes.

Not long after major and sustained unrest had occurred in the neighboring city of Ferguson, I visited the University of Missouri–St. Louis. The campus was a place of physical safety and emotional support for many of the students who had participated in the Ferguson protests. It was also a place for learning. Students, for instance, organized a day of silence, during which, as an act of protest, they did not speak at all. At the end of the day, however, students spoke at an open mic about “issues that typically silence others.”19

Students are, and should be, drawn into public life through social movements. But college educators have appropriate roles to play. We can start by recognizing that many of our students are learning and growing by making sacrifices in social movement politics. That represents both a danger to those students and a potential basis for their ability to flourish. Without endorsing any particular movement, we can strive to make the experience of social activism as beneficial and educational as possible for those most involved, while also providing alternative forms of engagement for those who choose not to participate.


  1. Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954–63 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988), 487; David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: Vintage, 1986), 162–3.
  2. Branch, Parting the Waters, 489–91.
  3. Martin Luther King Jr., “The Time for Freedom
    Has Come,” New York Times, September 10, 1961.
  4. Mohandas K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj, or Indian Home Rule (Madras: S. Ganesan & Co., 1921), 90.
  5. Danielle S. Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 41.
  6. Mohandas K. Gandhi, The Message of the Gita (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1959), 17.
  7. Ramachandra Guha, Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914–1948 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018), 439.
  8. Martin Luther King Jr., Stride to Freedom: The Montgomery Story, 1958 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), 42.
  9. “CIRCLE Poll: So Much for Slacktivism, as Youth Translate Online Engagement to Offline Political Action,” Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, October 15, 2018,
  10. Ziad W. Munson, The Making of Pro-Life Activists: How Social Movement Mobilization Works (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).
  11. Robert K. Merton, “Science and the Social Order,” Philosophy of Science 5, no. 3 (1938): 321–337.
  12. See Karuna Mantena, “Showdown for Nonviolence: The Theory and Practice of Nonviolent Politics,” in To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., eds. Tommie Shelby and Brandon M. Terry (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018), 78–83.
  13. See Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011); Marshall Ganz, Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 17–18; Sara M. Evans and Harry C. Boyte, Free Spaces: The Sources of Democratic Change in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1986).
  14. Nancy Thomas and Adam Gismondi, “A New Era of Student Unrest?,” Inside Higher Ed, February 7, 2017,
  15. Alica Garza, “Black Lives Matter Cofounder Alicia Garza Talks Staying Centered in the Face of Extreme Adversity,” Complex, November 6, 2017,
  16. Nancy Thomas and Margaret Brower, “Promising Practices to Facilitate Politically Robust Campus Climates,” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 50, no. 6 (2018) 25–26.
  17. Deborah Donahue-Keegan, Janna Karatas, Victoria Elcock-Price, and Noah Weinberg, “Social-Emotional Competence: Vital to Cultivating Mindful Global Citizenship in Higher Education,” in Engaging Dissonance: Developing Mindful Global Citizenship in Higher Education, eds. Amy Lee and Rhiannon D. Williams (Bingley, UK: Emerald Publishing Limited, 2017), 265–291.
  18. “CIRCLE Poll,” Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
  19. Nancy Thomas, “Politics 365: Fostering Campus Climates for Student Political Learning and Engagement,” in Teaching Civic Engagement Across the Disciplines, eds. Elizabeth C. Matto, Alison Rios Millett McCartney, Elizabeth A. Bennion, and Dick Simpson (Washington, DC: American Political Science Association, 2017), 361.

Peter Levine is the associate dean of academic affairs and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs in Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. His most recent book is We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Previous Issues