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What has happened to the civil rights movement? Just a quarter of a century ago, the spiritual and moral courage of civil rights leaders touched the conscience of a nation, which watched while peaceful protesters were beaten and small children were blown to bits. The images demolished the mythology that the system of racial segregation had any relationship to the preservation of civilization and brought about an avalanche of federal and state initiatives aimed at eradicating discrimination. Some of them—the public accommodations provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to take two prominent examples—worked radical transformations in the fabric of American society. The air was rich with a sense of confidence, and triumph, and loving sacrifice.

But something has happened. The civil rights movement, if it still exists at all, has lost its ascendancy among American social movements. It has lost energy, lost purpose, lost popularity. Something has gone terribly wrong, and everybody has a story about what it is. Most of the stories are ideological. For critics from the right, the movement is said to have lost its spiritual moorings, to have sacrificed the glowing principle of color-blindness on the altar of racial preferences. Critics from the left, in one of those fascinating ironies that drive liberal centrists half mad, offer a symmetrical assessment: the civil rights movement has lost ground because it has pressed for more than the society is ready to give.

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