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Suits, Jeans, and Civil Rights


Clothing at its best, highlights our dignity and upholds who we are.


Have you ever noticed that we tend to relate moments in history to the fashion of the time? Medieval era? Chainmail armor and velvet robes. Landing on the moon? Astronaut suit. Space gear even seeped into the style of the time from go-go boots to metallic clothing pieces. Clothing says something about what has caused it. Something is communicated to us about the mission and goal of these historical moments by what the people are wearing.


There are varying articles discuss Martin Luther King Jr. as a type of fashion icon, but we are quick to share

the disclaimer as we begin this article that “for King and other black activists [the fashion influence we

mention] weren’t styles adopted to suit their personal tastes, but rather an identity forced upon them by a

racist system many gave their lives fighting against.” The activists recognized that their every action would be heavily scrutinized and critiqued hence why they figured might as well wear their “Sunday Best” to lessen the blow and make an impression that this was not some passing fad or little protest that was mindlessly thrown together. Their intent was rooted in the truth and it needed to be communicated boldly and taken seriously.


Martin Luther King Jr. made a point to dress in a way that called attention to his words and the weight which they held. His wife, Coretta Scott King, understood the importance of appearance in correlation to one’s character and social position, especially in the formal days of the mid-twentieth century. She is often pictured in what some might call “First Lady” attire. She is known for her poise, resilience, and courage fighting alongside her husband all the way.


The Kings are not the only ones using clothing as a means to carry out the fight for their civil rights. Jeans had a negative connotation with blue-collared workers and the jobs that black southerners held in the 1960’s. They were often worn with scorn as well as with a desire to be apart from them as much as possible. There is a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. wearing all denim, “The look hit the mainstream in August of 1963 with King’s March on Washington. Over 250,000 took to the National Mall in America’s capital to demand civil and economic rights for Black Americans. These quarter-million included many of the workaday Black Southerners who wore their denim to DC.” Civil rights activist began wearing denim as a testament to fight for freedom and as a conversation starter. Clothing is used to make a statement, to call attention to a need—an issue—the truth.


The activists wore denim as a reminder of “Do not turn a blind eye—do you see what has happened—what

is happening to your brother and your sister? This is not just a “they” problem. This involves all of us. This

requires a fight from all of us.”


Within all of this, it's important that today, we don't turn this way of presenting one's respectability through their choice of clothing isn't added to the long list of things black Americans are expected to do to make themselves "worthy" of being listened to. The decision of how to dress, the tone of words, and the way someone presents themselves must never be a prerequisite to them being taken seriously. The Civil Rights Movement wasn't made by the choice of clothing- yet so much work was supported through these seemingly minute choices.


There is still much work to be done.


May our clothing reflect who we are, and perhaps even what we are fighting for.

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