Q&A: Historian Compares Today’s Protests to Civil Rights Movement of ’50s and ’60s

Group of people protesting in the streets at dusk

Daily protests following the death of George Floyd began in major American cities last weekend, including in Richmond. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

People have taken to the streets in cities around the country and the world over the past week – with some demonstrations peaceful and some becoming chaotic and violent – to protest recent killings of black Americans and racial injustice.

UVA Today asked Kevin Gaines, the University of Virginia’s inaugural Julian Bond Professor of Civil Rights and Social Justice, to give context to current events. He reflected on what was happening in the U.S. in the mid-20th century that brought about the civil rights movement, similarities and differences with recent protests, and the struggles for social and economic equality that remain.

Gaines, who holds appointments in the Carter G. Woodson Institute of African-American and African Studies and in the Corcoran Department of History, came to UVA in 2018. He researches and teaches African American history and culture, extending to the global circulation of African American narratives of freedom and liberation. His forthcoming book, “The African American Journey: A Global History,” will focus on that topic.

His 1996 book, “Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture During the Twentieth Century,” was awarded the American Studies Association’s John Hope Franklin Book Prize.

Q. Have protests worked in the past? Please talk about a few examples.

A. Absolutely. The main precedent for the current national wave of protests against police and vigilante violence against African American men and women is the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. That was arguably the most significant event in U.S. history during the 20th century. The protests we’re seeing today all over the nation are similar in many ways to the marches, picketing and demonstrations of the civil rights movement.  

There is no question that the protests of the 1960s were effective. They brought about the demise of state-supported racism in the South. They made the United States a liberal democracy in which African Americans could participate fully, through voting and holding electoral office. The Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 and the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965 – part of the campaign for voting rights – are all remembered as galvanizing public support for racial justice.   

We tend to look back on those moments with nostalgia, forgetting a crucial part of our history: the organized “massive resistance” to school desegregation and civil rights by a white South united from top to bottom under the banner of white supremacy and willing to use state and vigilante violence to maintain the status quo. The lynching of Emmett Till, the 14-year old African American youth in Mississippi, occurred [in 1955] roughly a year after the Supreme Court declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional.

Kevin Gaines headshot

“Our perception of the effectiveness of protests cannot be separated from the anti-black violence that causes them,” according to Kevin Gaines. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Like protesters today, civil rights leaders and organizations struggled for moral authority and to control the narrative about their movement in a climate of vicious hostility. Southern segregationists tried to gaslight the entire nation, arguing that African Americans under Jim Crow were content with their lot. White supremacist propaganda fomented mass hysteria with old and new racist scripts, from so-called race mixing (sex between black men and white women), to Communist conspiracies, replete with vile notions of racial and religious bigotry. The objective was to demonize African Americans’ demands for equal access to education and equal treatment in public life.

To counter such propaganda and hostility, civil rights activists and organizations embraced the philosophy and tactic of nonviolence and Christian ideals of forgiveness and “beloved community” in the struggle for moral authority. By framing their protests in this way, the movement and its leaders sought to win over the hearts and minds of white America.

It’s instructive for the current crisis to remember that the civil rights movement struggled against the outright racism of Jim Crow, but also the deep suspicion within much of the white mainstream media that questioned the legitimacy of nonviolent, direct action protests and civil disobedience, or even worse, claimed that the movement would degenerate into violence and lawlessness.

Today’s protesters are waging their version of this struggle to control the narrative of their movement, and it remains to be seen whether social media will be a help or a hindrance, with its cacophony of unfiltered opinion, confusion and outright disinformation.

Q. Why are public protests effective, or why not?

A. How do we measure effectiveness? It depends on what the goals are. Some of the civil rights movement’s racial justice goals were achievable (though not without enormous sacrifice – many lost their lives, endured beatings or were imprisoned unjustly). Other goals, such as economic justice, were thornier. 

Before 1965, civil rights protests had clear goals, seeking racial justice reforms that aligned with basic American tenets of freedom and democracy. African Americans sought equal access to quality education in the North and the South. They demanded an end to discrimination, in public life in the South, and in jobs and housing everywhere. In the Jim Crow South, African Americans demanded the right to vote. Federal civil and voting rights legislation achieved formal equality and citizenship, transformed the South and toppled the edifice of Jim Crow.  

But those major reforms, long overdue, failed to address the largely economic and social plight of many African Americans, especially in the urban North, including high unemployment, overcrowded and substandard housing, failing schools and police brutality. Before he was gunned down, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. tried to address poverty and economic inequality with the Poor People’s Campaign, a march on Washington in which poor people of all races demanded economic justice.  

Obviously, economic inequality remains a deep problem.

King and a host of younger activists, including the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, redefined the movement as a struggle for economic justice. But where King insisted that the struggle remain committed to nonviolent protest, the Black Panther Party advocated the right of African Americans to self-defense against police brutality. In 1966, King’s march in Chicago against housing and job discrimination met with jeering, rock-hurling white mobs.  

The Black Panther Party’s theatrical style of protest, their practice of providing breakfast programs and public health services to poor and marginalized black communities, and their opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam made them popular among many African Americans and young whites, particularly on college campuses. But the Panthers’ challenge to police brutality, waged in the all-American language of constitutional rights, sparked armed confrontations with local police and led eventually to violent repression and mass arrests by a combination of local, state and federal law enforcement.

As African American rage at unemployment, urban disinvestment and police brutality exploded into civil unrest in several major cities during the late 1960s – virtually all of these uprisings touched off by an incident of police violence against African American victims – white politicians and newspaper editorial boards blamed King for failing to quell these disturbances, which often involved arson and looting. 

Both King and the Black Panthers, hounded by FBI surveillance, were fighting deeply entrenched ideologies and structures of white dominance and black subordination in the economy, the U.S. government, the military and law enforcement. King was assassinated in Memphis while supporting striking African American sanitation workers. Enraged at the violent death of a man of peace and nonviolence, African Americans took to the streets in cities across the nation, including Washington, D.C., where National Guard troops patrolled the aftermath of smoldering ruins and rubble.

The struggle for economic justice remains the unfinished business of the civil rights movement. 

And the persistent and worsening problem of police brutality imperils the future of America. For all that the civil rights movement achieved, white supremacy and violence against black people have become calcified within law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Unchecked, unaccountable police violence against black, brown and native people is the diseased, beating heart of white supremacy in our body politic.

Q.  Is a change in cultural or societal attitude as important as policy changes that may result?

A. Policy changes and changing public sentiment go hand in hand. Today, the organizers of protests against police violence seek an end to the systemic injustice of racial disparities in policing and punishment. But that can’t happen without appeals to conscience and the mobilization of public support for structural change. Police misconduct and abuse of power have long been tolerated by police departments, prosecutors, juries and large swaths of the citizenry. Given that history, it’s striking to see the instances in which peaceful protesters have appealed to police officers to “take a knee” with them, in solidarity with their cause.  

That very example of taking a knee, emulating the iconic gesture of dissent associated with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, suggests that protesters and organizers enact a dialogue between past and present, drawing on recent experiences and past movements in shaping the terms and tactics of struggle. Civil rights activists of the 1960s challenged whites to see the hidden realities and injuries of racism.  

Thanks to a 17-year-old civilian’s smartphone recording, the world has witnessed the video of George Floyd’s strangulation for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill, his life calmly and deliberately crushed out of him by Derek Chauvin’s knee to the victim’s neck. The encounter made the historical abstraction of 400 years of racial oppression unbearably real to many people around the world.

Chauvin’s demeanor recalls James Baldwin’s description in his novel, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” of a racist police officer, the nemesis of the book’s black woman protagonist, who says she’s frightened to death by “the blankness of [his] eyes. If you look steadily into that unblinking blue, into that pinpoint at the center of the eye, you discover a bottomless cruelty, a viciousness cold and icy.” The inspiring actions of multiracial, multigenerational peaceful protesters are haunted by the nightmarish image of the indifference of Chauvin and three other officers to Floyd’s pleading for his life.

Our perception of the effectiveness of protests cannot be separated from the anti-black violence that causes them. In this sense, the protest movement becomes more than simply a demand for change, for policies seeking reforms. The protest becomes an appeal to the conscience of indifferent, if not hostile, whites. From the civil rights movement’s demands for dignity and respect to current declarations that “Black Lives Matter,” the goal is to forge empathy and solidarity across the racial divide, to persuade white people that they are dehumanized by white supremacy as much as black people are.

Q. Is today’s period of protest different from past examples? In what ways?

A. During the 1960s, the mainstream media was an ambiguous ally of the civil rights movement, broadcasting searing images of heavy-handed police tactics in Birmingham and Selma, while at other times vilifying King for his anti-war stance and sensationalizing the views of Malcolm X, a prominent critic of police brutality. The moral clarity of the Black Lives Matter movement was effective in changing the subject from racist media narratives that criminalized black youth to highlighting the stark contradiction of the increasing toll of police killings of black people during the purportedly “post-racial” Obama presidency. The movement also reminded the public that in addition to black men whose deaths sparked protests, black women and black transgender people were among those victimized by racist violence.

The problem of police brutality against black people has existed for decades, mostly in the shadows. Though pervasive, it often remained hidden from public scrutiny by police cover-ups, and many whites’ refusal to heed the suffering of their black fellow citizens.

The rise of social media, and the Black Lives Matter movement, raised the consciousness of a substantial segment of the public about systemic abuses of power by law enforcement, white privilege, and the racist scripts broadcast in the media that seek to legitimize police and vigilante violence by criminalizing black victims.  

Today’s protests in response to the most recent spate of high-profile police and vigilante killings of unarmed black people are patterned after the model of nonviolent, or peaceful protests established by the modern civil rights movement. With the nation already roiled by the pandemic-induced economic collapse; a polarizing president notorious for stoking racial hatred, inciting violence and attacking the press; and the chaotic free-for-all on social media of facts and falsehoods, the protesters in the wake of the murder of George Floyd will struggle mightily to minimize potential harm to their cause from disruptive elements and maintain the narrative of peaceful protest.

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