Whether you support the #BlackLivesMatter movement, are indifferent or view the protesters with contempt — the past two years of racial unrest have made clear these protests are not going away. Alongside the groundswell of Black Lives Matter activism is a considerable jump — from 46 percent in 2014 to 59 percent in 2015 — in the proportion of Americans who say the country needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites.
The growing movement raises important questions about the usefulness of protest as a strategy to increase government accountability and to reform a profoundly unjust criminal justice system. A central question is: Can #BlackLivesMatter protests effect meaningful change in government?
My book, “Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State,” examined an earlier movement focused on the protection of black lives. I studied archival materials of the battle by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) against lynching and mob violence from 1909 to 1923. My research showed how the NAACP raised public awareness, met with American presidents, secured the support of Members of Congress, and won a consequential criminal justice victory in the Supreme Court. Drawing from the book’s findings, we can identify three key things to know about ongoing #BlackLivesMatter protests:
1. The fight to protect black lives from unjust state violence has deep historical roots
Some people, including Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, have expressed confusion as to why protesters believe recent police misconduct is emblematic of a system of racial injustice and not just a few bad apples. For many blacks, what is happening right now is not new; it is grounded in a documented history of state violence against black citizens. In general, the American public knows little about the long history of racial terror in the United States in which law enforcement officers, politicians, and private white citizens killed blacks without legal punishment.
Americans know even less about the long tradition of Black Lives Matter protests.
Nearly 100 years ago, in 1916, the NAACP led the largest movement in history against lynching and racist mob violence. Focused on protecting black lives, the NAACP organized mass demonstrations in the streets and launched an extensive public outreach campaign in order to reach “the heart and conscience of the American people.”
When concern was raised at a meeting that the NAACP’s agenda was too narrowly focused on the issue of racial violence, Roy Nash, an African American who was part of the NAACP’s leadership, attempted to explain the organization’s focus: “All the Negro wanted was a chance to live without a rope around his neck.”
It was a sobering but necessary reminder that if the protection of black lives were not secured, all other civil rights were meaningless.
2. Protests in the street are not enough to create institutional change
The NAACP’s initial public awareness strategy was centered on the belief that white Americans would become so enraged that they would feel compelled to do something to end the tragedy of racial violence. However, even after the NAACP brought national media attention to the terrorism blacks endured, violence did not end.
Demonstrations in the streets and media attention are important to creating an environment ripe for reform but ultimately they’re not enough. The NAACP’s past history suggests that for a protest movement against racial violence to succeed, it needs to combine protest in the street with protest inside of political institutions.
The NAACP did this in three ways. First, the NAACP supplemented its publicity work with work in the legislative arena where it supported an anti-lynching bill and began a historic drive in Congress in 1921. Through an expansive grassroots effort, the NAACP pressured lawmakers in the House of Representatives to pass an anti-lynching bill but it was filibustered in the Senate and was never made into a law. Second, the NAACP set its sights on the Oval Office and lobbied Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding to make public statements condemning lynching. And finally, the NAACP pursued legal action against mob violence and secured a landmark Supreme Court victory through the case Moore v. Dempsey (1923).
The NAACP fought on multiple institutional fronts and adapted its strategies when it did not get the response from government it desired.
3. Protest can make government institutions more accountable to racial violence
As a result of the NAACP’s organizing in the first quarter of the 20th century, the rates of lynching and mob violence dramatically decreased. And after Moore v. Dempsey, federal courts intervened in numerous cases to protect the lives of black defendants from police brutality and unjust criminal trials.
Much research in political science looks to institutions and elite actors in government to explain dramatic shifts in political and constitutional development. The NAACP’s movement against racist violence tells a different story. It suggests that bottom-up protest can meaningfully change the actions taken by political institutions and make government more accountable to citizens.
The key takeaway from my research is that protest is necessary to reduce racial violence.
For this reason, the current #BlackLivesMatter protests have the potential to reshape the relationship between citizens and government. If the #BlackLivesMatter protests continue to combine mass demonstrations with agitation inside of political institutions, the movement could make the government more accountable in protecting black lives.
Megan Ming Francis is assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington and author of the award-winning book “Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State” published last year by Cambridge University Press. You can follow her on Twitter at @meganfrancis.