Timothy McCarthy on Human Rights and Social Movements

Interviewed by Molly Lanzarotta on Sept. 9, 2009

The 19th and 20th centuries in the U.S. produced social movements that greatly influenced their times, from abolition and women’s suffrage, to labor and civil rights. What will be the impact of social movements in the 21st century? Historian Timothy McCarthy is adjunct lecturer on public policy, and director of the new Human Rights and Social Movements Program at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.

Q. As you begin to lead this new program at the Carr Center, please tell us about the role the program will play at Carr and the Kennedy School, and how you see the relationship between social movements and human rights issues.

McCarthy:The Carr Center does amazing work in trying to look at a broad range of human rights issues as they relate to policy both domestically and throughout the globe. It’s been doing vital work in the areas of genocide intervention, responding to mass atrocities, state building, and a whole range of other issues.

This program seeks to understand the relationship between human rights and social movements, to try to understand how social movements historically and today seek to shape – and contest in some instances – what we understand as human rights, how we practice human rights, how we can be better practitioners of the work of human rights that we do. The program is attempting to understand that dynamic relationship between mass mobilizations and grass roots organizing on the one hand and these conceptions of human rights that we try to live and practice on the other.

Q. You have observed that U.S. presidents are never at the forefront of social change, but that they are usually prodded by social movements. As an historian, how do you see the relationship between social movements and policy makers in the past? Will social movements continue to have significant influence on policy in the future?

McCarthy: I like to tell my students that no president comes into office as a socially or politically transformative figure. Abraham Lincoln did not enter politics as an abolitionist; Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not enter the presidency as a union man; John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson didn’t enter the presidency or the decade of the 1960s as devoted grass roots civil rights activists. Barack Obama, the current president of the United States, did not enter the White House as a leading advocate for LGBT issues. All of these presidents have had to be prodded by social movements.

There have been moments throughout our history when times of great social change have been catalyzed by this dynamic relationship between enlightened leaders on the one hand – presidents who are willing to change, willing to evolve in office – and social movements that actually push them and demand that they do so. And so when you think about the abolition of slavery in the 1860s, it was achieved because of a movement that unfolded over the course of two generations, which influenced and persuaded an enlightened leader to do the right thing morally, ethically and politically.

The same thing was true of the labor movement and FDR – prodding him and convincing him that the right to unionize and the right to collectively bargain was a fundamental human right for all workers. Like John F. Kennedy and even more with Lyndon Johnson, it was the civil rights movement that had been taking place for a generation that moved these men in the direction of social justice on issues of race and socio-economic inequality. All of these presidents were prodded by social movements. Without these social movements you would not have had the great social transformations that have characterized this country.

In our current day, we have a president who many of us do believe is enlightened and ready to forge forward and produce change, but it is only going to be because of the social movements that push him that we are actually going to get that change.

Q. Where do you see lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) issues and the LGBT movement fitting in to the challenges faced by President Obama and other contemporary policy makers? What other social movements are emerging as being influential at the start of the 21st century?

McCarthy: I think the LGBT movement offers a case in point of what I’ve been talking about. Here is a social movement that is energized, that is rich in resources and creativity and political capital at the moment, very much demanding a more aggressive embrace by President Obama of a whole range of LGBT issues, not just marriage equality but employment nondiscrimination, equitable health care provisions, adoption laws and so forth. Whether or not advocates ever get to where they want to be as a movement will depend in some ways on how President Obama responds to the demands. And so I think this is a perfect example in the 21st century of a moment when a president can be moved by a social movement that is energized and I’m hoping that will be the case.

In terms of what movements are emerging that will lead us into a new century or that will characterize the first part of this new century -- I think there are increasing calls for global economic justice. Within the U.S. there is an educational reform movement that is characterized by an increasing energy and resources around charter schools and charter school reform, not only in our cities but all across the nation. I think the idea that every child deserves an education as a fundamental human right is also something that will emerge and has been emerging in the early part of the 21st century. The environmental movement is also picking up steam and is having a great deal of impact on our public policy and there are a whole range of other issues both here and abroad that I think will continue to flower and evolve and grow and continue to shape the way we work not only as a nation but as a nation among nations across the globe.

One of the things that I think is crucial in trying to figure out this relationship between social movements and human rights is how nations with very different political traditions, very different economic resources, very different social and cultural understandings, how they interact with one another within the realm of human rights. Can we begin to see beyond the borders of nation, of race, and economic inequality and start to understand that human rights are fundamentally about what it means to be human and what it means to be a full human being with the right to equality and freedom and dignity and peace? That will require nations and governments and peoples to see beyond themselves and to understand that there is a human project that is at the root of this human rights project.

Q. How will the research at the Carr Center help inform the understanding of these issues?

McCarthy: The new Human Rights and Social Movements program at the Carr Center attempts to explore three connections. On the one hand its attempting to explore the relationship between human rights and social movements: how social movements have shaped the way that we understand human rights; how they can test the consensus view of human rights or the practice of human rights that currently exists; and how they continue to do so in the modern day. And so this relationship between human rights and social movements is one area of focus in the program.

The second area of focus – well, I’m an historian, and I’m interested in how the past bears down on and helps to illuminate the present. And so one of the goals of this program is to really understand the history of human rights and the history of social movements, to try and understand what this historical relationship can teach us and help guide us to do in the present. So the relationship between history and the present is certainly an important one for this program.

The third thing that we seek to do is to try and figure out what I call the problem of coalition. One of the things I have found in my study of social movements is that social movements are always challenged to try and figure out how to build the strongest coalitions of people within the movements themselves. How to tap into the energies and creativities and resources that exist in the broadest possible range of people that might buy into or be part of a movement. And so that’s one problem of coalition building within the movement. There’s also a problem of coalition building between movements. How does, say, the black freedom struggle relate to the LGBT movement? How do fair housing advocates connect with people who are working on anti-poverty law. And so I’m interested in trying to figure out how we can build and how we can strengthen movements both internally and also externally, between movements that might be able to share resources and that might have something to teach one another. Too often movements operate separately and it drains resources and it prevents people from coming together to teach one another about how to engage in the work of social justice and human rights. And so this new program seeks to explore all of those connections, and I look forward to the work ahead.


John F. Kennedy School of Government 79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
617-495-1100 Get Directions Visit Contact Page