Civil rights activists from the 1960s have comforting words for American progressives today

Sonia Sanchez (left) and Dolores Huerta at Summit at Sea.
Sonia Sanchez (left) and Dolores Huerta at Summit at Sea.
Image: Summit at Sea 2016
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

To those on the left, the presidential election of Donald Trump feels like an unprecedented time of confusion and misery in the United States. But two women who’ve led civil rights action for decades, poet Sonia Sanchez and activist Dolores Huerta, say that the US has been through such difficult and divisive times before. Far from being unprecedented, they say the current political climate is reminiscent of the late 1960s.

Huerta says that the atmosphere after Trump’s election reminds her of the political mood after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, in 1968. “He would’ve been the next president of the United States of America,” she told an audience at the tech conference Summit at Sea in the days following the election. “In many ways [the 2016 election] felt like that moment. And of course Nixon was elected president of the United States.”

The Kennedy assassination happened at a time of political turmoil. The country was divided over the Vietnam war; there were huge protests. “When people say our country has never been as divided as it is today, well that’s not true. Back then it was very divided,” added Huerta.

But despite the cultural battles and the setback of a Nixon presidency, Huerta points out, this was still an era of significant progress for civil-rights movements. “That’s when we really started the resurgence of the women’s movement,” she said. “We had the LGBT movement and Green movement just starting to organize. Nixon was president but we had all of this organizing going on at that time and I think maybe we’ll see that right now.”

Sonia Sanchez, who’s been a leading voice in the Black Arts Movement, added that, even in the face of political turmoil, activism continued.

“We saw the Kennedys get assassinated. We saw Martin [Luther King] get assassinated, Malcolm [X] get assassinated. This happened in our time,” she said. “And what did we do? We said, ‘Hey, we gotta keep going, we gotta keep moving, we gotta keep organizing.’”

There’s no reason why the election of Donald Trump should halt activism or put an end to the legislative gains the left has made, she said. “You continue to live, you continue to do your work, you continue to teach and write and change people’s lives. It ain’t easy. But it’s a life’s work.”