Reflecting on the Civil Rights Struggle

I haven’t written a proper piece for years. I told myself I had to finish my travel blog from the summer of 2018 when, in the beginning of my travels, my computer was stolen in Sintra, Portugal. I have felt moved to break that promise many times since, but haven’t done so till today. For the past few days I have been watching documentaries featuring some of the luminaries that guided and instigated the civil rights struggle, including Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin, Martin King, Howard Thurman, Lorraine Hansberry, the Black Panthers, and the Freedom Riders. The last film I viewed, King in the Wilderness, left me very sad, and frankly, depressed. John Lewis, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, Harry Belafonte, and other friends and co-conspirators who worked with King narrated, sharing their sense that this nation (and inhabitants therein) might be too sick for even nonviolent resistance to heal. I watched as King grappled with the increasing hate and vitriol when he moved and began marching in Chicago, facing not 100 rabble rousers as was common in marches in the south, but 10,000, many carrying swastika-emblaizened white power flags. I felt my own sense of futility, overwhelm, and despair as I watched the backlash against King for speaking out against the Vietnam War. Abandoned by his friends, former classmates, religious leaders, King spent the last year of his life desolate and alone. Seeing his body in the casket and watching his father fall apart upon viewing it, I felt his loss as deeply as if he had just died yesterday.

My sense of loss has been compounded by the recent death of four inspirational personages, E.O. Wilson, Desmond Tutu, Gloria Watkins (bell hooks), and David Graeber. EO Wilson represented a bright light for global biodiversity, stating in his book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life that if we set aside half of the land and ocean for habitat, we might yet be able to stem the ever accelerating loss of species. Tutu’s spiritual commitment to nonviolence in the face of apartheid and his role in the truth and reconciliation movement rung out strongly for me. Gloria Watkins, my professor in a class at UCSC called Women and Race, opened my eyes to the historical roots of white feminism in selectively ignoring and reprioritizing the issues and concerns of black women. She could be acerbic and I recall being afraid of speaking in class for fear that my white privilege would be called out. David Graeber stunned me with Debt: The First 5000 years, a brilliant analysis of the use of credit and debt historically and the regularity of its forgiveness. His book The Dawn of Everything is a radical reimagining based on archeological evidence of the myriad of ways humans have organized their economic, social, and political life, and presents a biting critique of European “culture” in the 1500s and later by indigenous peoples.

I’ve been feeling down. No doubt the pandemic, and personal friends and relatives I have lost as a result, is partly to blame. But perhaps it is also due to a sense of futility about whether the problems at hand are fixable. How pervasive is the sickness deep in the roots of America’s bloody history, and will it ever be healed? Reflecting on the attempts of King and others to heal this wound, I wonder what progress would have been made if King, JFK, Robert Kennedy, Malcom X, the leaders of the Black Panther party, and others had not been assassinated. I think back to something Dennis Kucinich said about the powers that be. If they can’t make you irrelevant through ridicule or lies, they will kill you. I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the gist of it. Alan Dulles comes to mind, former CIA director who controlled American foreign and domestic policy for decades. When Kennedy dismissed him after the bay of pigs debacle, he continued to pull the CIA’s strings from his home in Georgetown. Some speculate his hand in JFK’s assassination.

I want my life to be relevant. I want to do something to stem the rate of extinction and social injustice and redress the climate catastrophe. I look to people that inspire hope, like King and other committed civil rights activists, as well as environmental activists like Wilson, David Attenborough, Joanna Macy, and Jane Goodall and books like Reindeer Chronicles, Active Hope, and Drawdown. I was struck by the effervescent creativity of the SCLC and other civil rights activist, their determination and unwillingness to give up, and yet how the looting and rioting in 1964 onward discouraged and deeply depressed all of them. I struggle with feelings of irrelevancy and the inability to make a difference. Perhaps my sense of futility about being able to reverse social injustice and environmental destruction stems from my personal struggle. Some, who have done great things, have also had fears of inconsequentiality. King, despite all that he had done, often felt that it was inadequate. Belafonte recalls that when King would visit his home, a sanctuary and place for him to write and gather his thoughts, he would inevitably toss most of his writing in the trash, after which Belafonte “would do a swan dive” to recover the gems.

Maybe there’s no answer or solution. It seems we can’t know whether or how our actions will affect the greater community. What to do in the face of the climate crisis reminds me of an analogy: if you are driving a car near a cliff without brakes in complete darkness, do you still keep your foot on the accelerator?


8 responses to “Reflecting on the Civil Rights Struggle

  1. My dear Lisa, Your new post begs comment, but I’m pretty much at a loss for words.  Your piece is so deep, honest and pure – and filled with such insight and wisdom.   You touched on so many revealing and important aspects, and I was heartened to read that you also see MLK Jr. was abandoned before he was finally assassinated.  From some of the B.S. I see in the news, we’ve already sort of rewritten King’s own history.  Sadly, it is true what you credit Kucinich for saying, that “if they can’t make you irrelevant through ridicule or lies, they will kill you.”  So much is wrong with/in this country, and the problems and issues are so old and deep that they are truly part of what we are now.  I think I have almost completely given up hope for seeing any real change this country so desperately needs.  Basically, I don’t think it can be fixed unless we give up Capitalism.  I’m really serious about that. If we ever really leveled the playing field, in a sustainable way, most of the other many issues will disappear.  But we’re not going in that direction, and anyone who supports that perspective is scorned, trivialized, or ignored. I loved your final sentence, Lisa, and agree that yes, our foot is definitely on the accelerator, but no one wants to admit that we’re on the edge of a cliff, in the dark.   Thank you so much for sharing this personal and beautifully, intelligently written piece with me.  I hope you won’t mind if I share it with others. These are dark and very difficult times, so please be gentle with yourself and as much as you can, do the things that you enjoy and are meaningful to you.  Find beauty wherever you can, too. Please take care. Love and peace,Nancy


    • Thank you so much Nancy for your empathetic and thoughtful reply. I agree completely about capitalism being the underlying engine that keeps racism, destruction of the environment, and other isms, alive and well.


  2. “there’s no answer or solution. It seems we can’t know whether or how our actions will affect the greater community”

    Of course, we can and DO know. Your statement is ignorant and a cope-out, not indicative of something who wants her “life to be relevant” but more like how most people live their life.

    There IS an answer or solution. But it is extremely unlikely to be ever come to fruition.


    Because the TRUE human condition or world we live in is about 2 pink elephants in the room (and has never been on clearer display than with the deliberate global Covid Scam atrocity) — read “The 2 Married Pink Elephants In The Historical Room –The Holocaustal Covid-19 Coronavirus Madness: A Sociological Perspective & Historical Assessment Of The Covid “Phenomenon””


  3. Anyone who has known Lisa Karpinski over the decades knows that she
    has been a dedicated fighter for environmental and personal justice. The absurd notion (opined by “NOW”) that she is ignorant and not relevant flies in the face of reality.

    She has fought to protect the local environment before Boards of Supervisors in the Bay Area. She has also worked with the California department that protects the environment from the dangers of toxic waste. Athough discouraged at the lack of action from much of the public, she continues to assist the oppressed and fight for the
    protection of the;’c

    As for solutions to today’s pressing problems, I think Lisa would agree
    that there ARE solutions, but as ‘NOW’ stated “… come to

    As for PINK ELEPHANTS…….


  4. Thank you Alex. I am honored by your response, particularly given your own dedication to social issues and work as an academic. I do not know the individual NOW who responded in such a way to invite a flame war. Given that they spelled cop out as cope out, I question their veracity. They don’t know me nor the work I’ve done over the years. It’s an example of the way that violent communication can be used to inflame others. In the face of much worse, King kept walking. I will do my best to remember him in the face of ignorant accusation.


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