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Playing the Long Game


In part because of our 24-hour media culture, every political act is defined in terms of winners and losers, with each loss seemingly devastating. There is good reason for that–many of the losses these days are in fact devastating. But the only answer to losing is to keep trying. Most of the time, we are going to lose. That’s the reality for anyone who studies labor history as I do and it’s the same for those who study other social movements. The forces of injustice are strong. It is hard to beat them. One way to deal with this, including dealing with it mentally after we lose, is to understand that we are playing a very long game, one that will last our whole lives. One big mistake that liberals have made in the last few decades is thinking that battles were won. But of course no battle is ever won. The Voting Rights Act is now effectively lost. The legal right for an abortion soon will be lost and barely exists in much of the country anyway. There is no guarantee gay marriage will continue to be legal. Nothing is ever won because evil never sleeps and they have all the money.

Blair L.M. Kelley, a historian of the early roots of the civil rights movement, makes this point better than I can, in terms of what we can learn from these failed struggles of the past in the wake of the Kavanaugh confirmation.

But in the end, these turn-of-the-20th-century African-American activists could not stop Jim Crow’s advance. Their suits, sit-ins, letter-writing campaigns, boycotts, marches and impassioned pleas to lawmakers failed to make a difference when legislators were determined to segregate no matter the costs. Segregation or exclusion became the law of the land in the American South, and remained so for many years, separating black and white Southerners not only on trains and streetcars but also in schools, neighborhoods, libraries, parks and pools.

Progressives, liberals and sexual assault survivors and all those who desire a more just and decent America and who feel they lost when Kavanaugh was confirmed despite their protest should remember Mitchell, Plessy, Walker and Wells, along with Elizabeth Jennings, James Pennington, Lola Houck, Louis A. Martinet, Rodolphe Desdunes, P.B.S. Pinchback, W.E.B. DuBois, Mary Church Terrell, J. Max Barber and many others, including those whose names we do not know. All of these men and women were on the side of justice and lost. None of these people, who fought for full and equal public access as free citizens on trains and streetcars, stopped fighting. None abandoned what they knew was right. They all tried again. Most would not live to see things made right, but they continued.

Those who see Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation as a lost battle in the larger war for gender equality and dignity for women — and sexual assault survivors, specifically — should emulate the activists of generations past. They should keep organizing, connect with like-minded people, volunteer for organizations that advocate for survivors, consider running for office, and work on the campaigns of those they believe in. A week after his confirmation, a reminder is in order: Movements are about more than moments; they are about thoughtful networks of dissent built over time.

My scholarship has taught me that activism requires a certain resilience, and the willingness to be long-suffering in pursuit of the cause. I hope people remember this. I hope they keep going.

Given the increasingly clear Republican desire to reinstitute segregationist policies, we may need to start thinking in these century-long time frames of struggle. But that doesn’t mean we can ever give up. We have no choice but to continue the fight.

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