The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the unrest of the 1960s compares to today, according to the people who lived through it

Police rush a crowd of protesters and make arrests on July 9 in Baton Rouge. (Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

The nation is on edge. Police shootings of black men have prompted civil rights protests across the country. Last week a deranged shooter saying he wanted to "kill white people, especially white police officers" fatally shot five police officers in Dallas and wounded seven more.

The unrest is prompting some observers to compare the present day to 1968, a year marked by protests, riots and deadly encounters between black citizens and police. This past weekend an enterprising Redditor was curious about the parallels and took to the popular AskReddit section of the site to pose the following question to the community's 12.2 million users: "Redditors who lived through the civil rights movement and societal upheaval in the 60s, how does what is going on now compare?"

The answers, many of them thoughtful and illuminating (though unverifiable, given Reddit's anonymity), offer a qualitative historical perspective on today's civil unease. Sifting through all of them, a few common themes emerge. (All quotes are exact, including spelling and grammatical errors.)

1. In the 1960s, many Americans openly encouraged violence against protestors.

"I clearly remember my parents and their friends sitting around the kitchen table having a lively discussion/debate about the pros and cons of killing all the protesters," recalls fishingman, who grew up "in a rural poor white family in Minnesota." He adds: "Some of the more conservative men kept saying the national guard should just come in with machine guns and 'mow down all the hippies and n*****s'." The more "moderate" adults in the room argued that "we probably don't have to kill all of them, just the agitators."

"When we would see protests on TV, my mom would always go 'they should use real bullets, they should be shooting those people. How dare they protest against their country!' " Redditor goofball_jones remembers.

"When some idiot drove his pickup truck into a crowd of anti war protesters in my small town," footwarrior recalls, "the local paper was full of lettres saying he was a hero for doing so."

DJH0710 recounts learning about the assassination of Martin Luther King: "I was watching TV in the den, my parents had friends over for drinks and they were in the living room. The news interrupted my show to announce his death and I went in and told the group in the [living room]. Someone said 'serves him right, he was just a n****r' and everybody laughed."

That brings us to point #2:

2. Racism was openly practiced and enshrined in law.

"Thank goodness my parents weren't real racist[s]," staffcrafter comments, "but they still felt that the 'colored' was wanting too much [too] fast. When MLK was killed I heard lots of comments about how he deserved it."

"My grandmother, who casually referred to people of color as either 'good n*****s' or 'bad n*****s' was considered a liberal, forward thinking woman of her generation because she actually employed a black woman and permitted one into her house," Adddicus remembers.

Yes, violence in America has suddenly increased. But that’s far from the whole story

Calvinnme recounts a childhood trip to her great aunt and uncle's house in Mississippi, in 1968: "I have a clear memory of my great-uncle talking about how a black man passed him on some rural highway back in the 30's and how he ran him off the road, made him get out of the car, and spanked him with a switch." After dinner, talk turned to the elections that year: "My dad was trying to convince my Mississippi relatives to vote for Nixon. I remember clearly them stating 'but Wallace will put the (N word)s in their place. He doesn't like them.' My father, a man I respected, actually said 'You don't understand. Nixon doesn't like them either!' "

"It is easy to forget how mainstream and acceptable bigotry was in the 60s," footwarrior says. "The N word was used in polite company. Real estate agents refused to show homes in white neighborhoods to anyone but whites. Classified ads had separate help wanted sections for men and women. In parts of the country there were additional sections for colored men and colored women.

That said, "the mechanisms by which black people are kept from social equality still function in our society," wee_idjit points out. "Our society is not as segregated, but it is still substantially segregated through economic measures."

3. Social divides were deeper back then.

"The protests were much larger, communication between different cultures was harder, and violence against blacks was accepted as necessary," fishingman says.

Many of the recollections speak of the divide between "agitators" or "instigators" and so-called "regular" people. "My paternal grandfather had been in the Air Force just before Korea and served with a lot of black men," fightinscot remembers, "but still felt the 'troublemakers' needed to be dealt with so the 'good and decent people' could go about their lives in their side of town."

Whocaresalot recounts an incident in a Boston public school where a student group had formed in part to make changes to the school dress code to allow girls to wear pants. One day, the principal made an announcement over the school loudspeaker: "He began by chastising the 'individuals' attempting to disrupt our school and that were influenced by 'outside agitators.' He then made a chilling suggestion that the student body knew how to 'take care of them' themselves."

DJH0710 remembers getting into a heated argument with his father over the Kent State shootings: "I remember saying to him that I could have been one of those students that had been killed. He told me that if I had been protesting the war, then I deserved to be killed. That is how divided families were back then."

4. Much of the '60s tumult was colored by the experience of the Vietnam War.

"The Vietnam war killed 58,220 young men," OldAngryWhiteMan says. "Brothers and sons known to everyone. Every night the updated casualty list poured across every screen on the evening news. These were our kids. We protested the draft and the war. Our peace marches almost all ended in violence; we burned sh*t down."

Quietbutreal adds "the real deal on the '60s was the Vietnam horror. Every single day the news was broadcasting footage of good ol' young white boys being shot, mangled, crippled and sent home in body bags — dozens if not hundreds on a daily basis. THIS was intolerable. Young American boys by the tens of thousands were being drafted — forcibly conscripted — and sent overseas to fight and die in the country that was no threat to us."

"The fact that the Vietnam war was brought into our living rooms every night, giving us a body count daily, really made people start questioning their governments motives," staffcrafter recalls.

5. The mass media transformed things.

Many of the respondents' memories are defined by what they saw on the evening news. "Watching the riots on TV was absolutely shocking," tanyanubin remembers. Callmelightningjunio vividly recalls "grainy black and white news footage of Watts burning, Detroit burning, the West side burning."

Adddicus points out that "the deaths of all these black man that are drawing such outrage and are leading news stories would never have been mentioned by the media back then. The 'investigations' into those deaths, if there even were any, would have been so biased and incomplete as to be laughable by today's standards (which are often still pretty laughable)."

After the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., DJH0710 "stayed up until the TV went off (about midnight I think, 24 hour TV didn't exist back then). In the morning they started reporting again about all the cities [where] the black communities were burning. I was shocked."

For many viewers in the 1960s, it was shocking to see this sort of unrest on their TV screens, in the comfort of their own homes, for the very first time. "The civil rights movement had brought the injustice and violence of American racism into the TVs and daily lives of the public at large," quietbutreal says.

Of course, mass media, in the form of cellphone videos published on the Internet, has been a major driver of the concerns about police officers' use of force today and has fueled the protests over police brutality against black Americans. Elements of some of the other problems Redditors mentioned also linger to this day. The presumptive presidential GOP nominee has called for protesters to be "roughed up," and law enforcement officials and political leaders still occasionally refer to "outside agitators" when protests go awry, most recently in Louisiana. Stark racism still occurs in the United States.

But the Redditors replying to this thread sensed the civil divides today are less severe than the ones they remember from their youth. Textbandit sums up the sentiment: "We have had some bad days recently but they will pass."

More from Wonkblog:

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