This is the nadir of contemporary racial politics. On Friday night, white nationalists and neo-Nazis marched on Charlottesville, Va. with torches, giving the Nazi salute and chanting phrases such as “Sieg Heil,” “White Lives Matter” and “You Will Not Replace Us.” The images of the violent mob of mostly white men sent shockwaves through a nation deeply divided by race. In addressing the march of white nationalists, President Donald Trump refused to denounce white supremacist violence in Charlottesville. Instead, he reluctantly blamed the “hatred, bigotry, and violence” on “many sides.”
These comments map onto the rhetoric and actions of a president wholly uninterested in advancing the cause of civil rights.
That lack of interest could be seen when Trump, the self-proclaimed “law and order” president, delivered policing advice. Speaking to an assembly of law enforcement officials, he advised: “When you see these thugs thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in — rough — I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice.’”
Some of the officers laughed, and others whistled and loudly applauded Trump’s encouragement of police brutality. Black Lives Matter activists and civil rights attorneys were quick to denounce the remarks on social media, both for violating the constitutional guarantee of due process and for condoning unlawful police force. Facing a public backlash, the administration attempted to walk the comments back, calling them “a joke.”
But for those who bear witness to police brutality in their communities, Trump’s reckless speech reinforced the complicity of the federal government in protecting routinized forms of police violence. And it raises an important question: What is the utility of trying to appeal to an administration that is openly hostile to protecting black and brown lives?
In the Trump era, some have suggested the BLM movement place more emphasis on local politics to sow the seeds of social change, as Nikkita Oliver, a BLM activist, did in her extraordinary campaign for mayor in Seattle this year. Local and state politics are undoubtedly important avenues for developing activist strategies, fundraising and recruiting new members.
But in our system of federalism, it is essential that local organizing continues to be connected to politics at the federal level. Over a century ago, the NAACP launched a crusade to protect black lives from lynching and mob violence during the administration of President Woodrow Wilson. And even with a president hostile to civil rights, they found that mass protest could be the catalyzing force behind revolutionary change in the political and legal branches.
Wilson was no supporter of civil rights. Born in Virginia and raised in South Carolina and Georgia, Wilson was the first southerner elected president since the Civil War. During Wilson’s tenure, lynchings of African Americans rose to historic levels, and his Southern Cabinet appointees began to implement a system of Jim Crow segregation in federal governmental office.
Despite campaign pledges to advance racial equality, Wilson’s presidency would soon come to represent one of the greatest disappointments to African Americans since the dismantling of Reconstruction. As soon as Wilson was inaugurated, he reneged on his promises to establish a National Race Commission and defended the re-segregation of federal governmental office as a “public safety concern.”
Six months after Wilson took office, W.E.B. Du Bois could no longer mask his outrage and wrote an open letter in his magazine, the Crisis, where he said of the new Wilson administration: “It is no exaggeration to say that every enemy of the Negro race is greatly encouraged; that every man who dreams of making the Negro race a group of menials and pariahs is alert and hopeful.”
Much like today, the White House was a combative environment helmed by an uninterested administration. But despite the dangerous racial climate, the NAACP did not turn away from Washington. Instead, it intensified its public protest efforts during Wilson’s second term.
In 1916, with James Weldon Johnson in control, the NAACP organized a nationwide movement to protect black lives from the racial terror of lynchings and mob violence. Key to this movement were public protests organized around its efforts in the political and legal arenas.
After a violent massacre of blacks in East St. Louis in July 1917, in which whites killed over 100 blacks and burned the black section of town to the ground, the NAACP organized a public protest aimed at raising awareness about the violence inflicted on black communities across the nation.
On July 28, 1917, over 10,000 African Americans silently marched to the sound of muffled drums down Fifth Avenue in New York City. Dressed in all white, close to 800 African American children held hands in the front. Thousands of women, also in white, followed them, and men in dark suits took up the rear. Police estimated that an additional 10,000 African Americans lined up along Fifth Avenue to show their solidarity. Dubbed the “Silent Protest Parade,” it was, at the time, the largest mass demonstration of African Americans in the United States.
The march captured the public’s attention. Major newspapers across the nation carried coverage of the protest. And afterward, Wilson, in a rare break from his adversarial stance toward civil rights, set up a meeting with a small NAACP delegation to discuss concerns about black deaths and state violence.
And it was not all puffery: months after meeting with members of the NAACP, Wilson delivered a speech on July 26, 1918, condemning lynching: “There have been many lynchings and every one of them has been a blow at the heart of ordered law and humane justice.” While seemingly a small rhetorical concession, Wilson’s condemnation of lynching marked a critical shift in the president’s unofficial acceptance of racial violence.
More significantly, it emboldened the NAACP to use public demonstrations in tandem with its battles in Congress and the Supreme Court. And it yielded surprising results. In 1922, the first-ever anti-lynching bill passed the House of Representatives (though the bill was abandoned in the Senate). And the NAACP secured a breakthrough in criminal procedure with the landmark case Moore v. Dempsey in 1923, which marked the first time the federal government interfered in a state criminal court proceeding and declared that a fair trial must be free from mob domination. By the mid-1920s, lynchings started to decline across the United States.
Sustained executive attention and judicial protection for black lives came through pressure from activists.
What the Silent Protest March teaches us is that publicity garnered through mass demonstrations is an important component to social movements aimed at transforming political and legal arrangements at the federal level. Put simply: Institutional development derives from the tension between powerful actors and those who contest and critique the projects they seek to implement.
The Black Lives Matter movement faces many challenges in the Trump era. Trump has denounced protesters and pledged support to the “blue lives matter” movement. As the NAACP did a hundred years ago, activists must continue to resist the president’s draconian agenda and place pressure on him through mass protests. Public protest changes the calculus for politicians by making it more costly to support violent and unjust systems of power.
Ultimately, the legitimacy of political institutions resides with the people. Boldly protesting for the government we want in the current political climate is the tremendous challenge of contemporary politics, but it is also the only way to a more just future.