The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

America’s nonviolent civil rights movement was considered uncivil by critics at the time

In this May 3, 1963, photo, a 17-year-old civil rights demonstrator, defying an anti-parade ordinance of Birmingham, Ala., is attacked by a police dog.  (Bill Hudson/AP)
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American history is rooted in the political brawls, fistfights, and debates that culminated in a revolutionary war for independence and a civil war that ushered in a new democratic political order built on the blood of over 600,000 dead. As we celebrate July 4, it’s worth remembering that freedoms now taken for granted have come at a high cost in comparison to the rhetorical wars being waged by partisans in our increasingly divided and divisive political culture.

Political incivility in the Age of Trump continues to stir national controversy, with conservatives accusing progressives of going too far in their condemnation of MAGA supporters and Trump administration officials, some of whom were publicly heckled as they tried to eat at restaurants in the nation’s capital.

Although the civil rights period is largely recognized as one of the proudest eras in American history, this wasn’t always the case.

Civil rights demonstrators, activists and organizations utilized robust political tactics, stinging criticism and demonstrations that were designed to create upheaval in American society.

Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala., could certainly be defined as uncivil behavior.  Mrs. Parks’s incivility helped to spark a national political revolution in defense of black lives nationally and around the world.

The allegation that contemporary activists expressing ardently peaceful dissatisfaction with the precarious state of American democracy are promoting violence, incivility or worse is a long-running tactic used to stifle change.

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The historic debate between advocates of nonviolence and self-defense obscures the reality that nonviolent civil disobedience received widespread condemnation by both defenders of segregation and moderates who personally disapproved of Jim Crow. Both groups criticized the protest tactics designed to eradicate that evil system.

Black college students who engaged in peaceful sit-ins at lunch counters that denied them service because of the color of their skin were criticized for behavior that, however passive, appeared provocative to defenders of the status quo. What movement activists  proudly characterized as “putting your body on the line” in promotion of racial justice and radical democracy was, in certain quarters, demonized as the unpatriotic behavior of communist-inspired subversives.

Fannie Lou Hamer, the legendary Mississippi sharecropper turned voting rights activist, certainly fit the picture of simmering rage against racism during her now-famous August 1964 testimony before the credentials committee at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. “I question America!” she passionately declared, raising her voice as she recounted a sorrow song of racial violence, economic exploitation, and raw terror personally experienced for simply wanting to live in peace as a human being.  Mrs. Hamer’s blunt description of the systemic nature of white supremacy in the Deep South made her a hero to millions of Americans who recognized her candid testimony as an act of faith based on her love of freedom, democracy and black folk everywhere.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) encouraged supporters at a rally in Los Angeles June 23 to stand up to members of President Trump’s administration. (Video: Allie Caren, Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

King, the prince of nonviolence, received steady streams of criticism from politicians, journalists and clergy for engaging in peaceful demonstrations that, by stoking the anger of white supremacists, threatened to turn violent at any moment.  At the height of his global popularity, between 1963-1965, King defended himself from right-wing attacks that smeared him as a communist, as well as liberal hand-wringing over the accelerating pace of civil rights demonstrations.  His famous “Letter From Birmingham City Jail” represents perhaps his most eloquent response to critics who charged that even peaceful demonstrations could stir political chaos.  King played defense by going on the offensive, memorializing the young black demonstrators who risked their lives by filling up the city’s jail cells protesting against racial segregation. Their quest for black dignity, citizenship and humanity, King argued, transcended quaint notions of civility.  King predicted, correctly it turns out, that in the not-too-distant future this nation would celebrate civil rights protesters for “carrying the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy” that formed the bedrock of America’s political faith.

King’s steadfast belief that achieving racial justice represented the beating heart of democracy made him, in the eyes of certain critics, an extremist.

It also cemented his status as one of modern America’s founding political architects, a patriot whose love of country expressed itself in protests, demonstrations and criticisms against injustice that made those in powerful positions uncomfortable.

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Conservative efforts to taint civil rights demonstrations as violent, subversive or uncivil proved to be an effective line of attack that, over time, strongly influenced white moderates and liberals.

By the late 1960s King, the Nobel Prize-winning peace activist who had been recognized as Time magazine’s Man of the Year, experienced the kind of vitriolic demonization at the hands of the mainstream press usually reserved for Malcolm X and Black Power advocates. King’s increasingly public attacks against racism, poverty and the Vietnam War left him vulnerable to the kind of charges that successfully painted Malcolm X as a hate monger to much of the American public.

The contemporary state of American political discourse closely resembles 1968, a tumultuous year that remains more copiously written about than it is understood.  America hovered on the precipice of civil war, domestic insurrection and chaos. For a time, the whole nation embraced its uncivil face.

Black Panthers called for a political revolution just as George Wallace supporters touted white rights as an anecdote for racial integration, and Richard Nixon carved a racially toxic “middle” ground through a law-and-order message that promised suburban redemption at the expense of inner cities across the nation.  “The Whole World is Watching!” became the clarion call of demonstrators at the riotous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago as “Black Power!” became America’s latest global export.

Black Lives Matter protests, March for Our Lives rallies, #MeToo demonstrations and rallies on behalf of immigrants, women and LGBTQ communities represent the contemporary face of social-justice movements in America, ones that build on, while transcending, an earlier movement that we erroneously romanticize as passive to our enduring national detriment.

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