The photo presents a beautiful image. But displayed out of context, like a graduation snapshot pulled from a family album, it offers a distorted picture of King’s life, the development of the civil rights movement and the much more complicated process of social change. Social movements are sloppy and undisciplined affairs, with people and organizations spilling in and out of action over long periods of time, deploying a wide repertoire of tactics in the service of diverse goals. When we look back, we always see an edited history that grossly simplifies the knotty politics of social change, identifying an archetypal “good” protester — often King — to provide a contrast and criticism of contemporary committed activists, who are always judged to fall short.
Diversity, disputes and mobilized opposition haunt today’s campaign against racialized police violence. But that’s the story of virtually every influential social movement in American history. Marches are not like nightclubs. Clubs hire bouncers to work the rope line or the door, sorting and sifting out people who might make trouble, might not spend enough money or might undermine the club’s desired image. But no one is a bouncer at a political demonstration. Right now in the streets, some marchers believe that once alerted, local police departments will sift out their own bad apples, and others think that police are beyond reform. Some focus exclusively on the criminal justice system, while others claim that capitalism must be uprooted to pursue justice. Although most reject any kind of violence for moral or pragmatic political reasons, some are sanguine about breaking windows. They’re all out marching together, and they don’t necessarily know who thinks what. And at any rate, protesters in coats and ties rarely turn up in the pictures from today’s protests.
The sense of a crowd overwhelms and obscures all of the diversity within, but politicians, police and protesters alike pick out examples for their own purposes, projecting an oversimplified image of the whole movement through a “good” or “bad” protester. Marchers promote the community organizers who keep the peace and hang the violence on undercover police, agent provocateurs or white nationalists determined to start a race war. Their opponents blame undisciplined youth or highly disciplined antifa activists, determined to take down the system. Absent public evidence for most of these claims, and considering the extraordinary reach of the marches, anyone with a little knowledge of history will believe that any or all of these players are at work.
The judgment is almost always a simplification, but it matters. “Good” protesters are forgiven their trespasses in light of their sincerity, gaining respect and often political access. “Bad” protesters are stigmatized and punished. The committed and charming kids who survived the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School appeared on the cover of Time magazine and got to meet legislators in congressional offices; they brought new attention to a growing social movement. But most Americans rejected President Trump’s claim that Unite the Right marchers in Charlottesville were “very fine people”; marchers lost jobs or access to dating sites.
More often, the judgments are complicated and contested. Trump judged the armed protesters in Lansing, Mich., seeking to lift the pandemic restrictions to be “very good people,” and urged Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) to meet with them and work something out. But he has emphatically avoided getting near the racial justice protesters whom he tagged “thugs.” Police have an extraordinarily difficult time sorting out good protesters from bad, partly because anything can change in a moment; it’s easier to declare a curfew or arrest or gas everyone.
Throughout our history, judgments about the moral worth of protesters has shifted in response to political circumstances and the issue of the moment. Suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt eventually won the support of President Woodrow Wilson, while her one-time colleague Alice Paul was arrested for picketing outside, protesting World War I. Tens of thousands of veterans of that war assembled a Bonus Army at the height of the Great Depression, asking that they receive their service bonus early, to help them through tough times. They marched to Washington, D.C., and established an encampment where they pledged to stay until they received their money. Their service and disciplined conduct brought them tolerance and respect — until it didn’t. After a couple of months of protest, on the orders of President Herbert Hoover, Gen. Douglas MacArthur cleared out the camps by burning them down. Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling was arrested outside the White House, protesting for nuclear disarmament, the night before attending a formal dinner with President John F. Kennedy inside.
And King, now represented by a monument next to the National Mall, is far more popular in death than the courageous socialist pacifist who suffered under constant FBI surveillance and harassment while alive. He wasn’t always a “good” protester; his colleagues may have been even worse.
The picture of the marchers tweeted at King’s daughter is authentic, but it’s only part of a much longer and more complicated story. Two weeks before that inspirational photo was taken, the same John Lewis was viciously beaten by police officers determined to keep him from crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge leaving Selma. There’s a good photo of that as well.
Good photos from the previous summer show race riots in more than a half-dozen American cities, including six tense days of marches and riots and looting in Harlem, with hundreds of arrests. The days in Harlem followed the police killing of a 15-year-old African American boy; the officer was absolved of wrongdoing. Does that sound familiar?
That same summer, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee launched a 10-week voter registration campaign in Mississippi, staffed by young black and white students, including many from the most prestigious universities in the United States. The organizers thought the presence of elite white youth would focus attention on the gross injustices of the segregated South. Within days of the white volunteers’ arrival, three men had been killed by white Mississippi citizens offended by the temerity of the campaign.
It’s dishonest, or at least irresponsible, to grab one dramatic event, even a great speech or a brave act of civil disobedience, pick it out of context and credit it with all the influence of a broad and complicated movement. More than a decade of lawsuits, civil disobedience campaigns, peaceful marches, powerful speeches — and, yes, riots — all contributed to the growth and success of the civil rights movement, and the chance for King to one day become a “good” protester. Perhaps King and the other marchers appeared respectable and calm in that photo because one week earlier, President Lyndon B. Johnson had announced his support for the marchers and for the Voting Rights Act, ending an eloquent call for civil rights with an echo of the movement anthem, “We Shall Overcome.” Perhaps they appeared placid because they were protected by National Guard troops Johnson had placed under federal control.
Conservative critics love to remember King, but only when facing contemporary activists trying to pursue the very same goals that animated King a half-century ago. Rather than admonishing today’s protesters, they could help by providing the conditions that would allow those less disruptive events to matter.
Social movements effectively promote political change when the issues at stake aren’t completely overshadowed by the tactics activists deploy. Marches were unpopular in the 1960s, but activists were able to use them to keep talking about civil rights and social justice. Violent confrontations and the destruction of property are unappealing and often scary, but thus far, concerns about police violence have been amplified, rather than crowded out by those confrontations. And it’s really a collective effort, even if not directly coordinated. King would not have received — and used — the massive attention he got without the extraordinary diversity of other efforts, sometimes unattractive or scary, to promote racial justice. Social change is credited to the good protester, but the bad and even the ugly help make it happen.
The implicit advice to the younger Reverend King wasn’t to be more like her father, it was to stop her activism. In much the same way, those who claimed football player and philanthropist Colin Kaepernick’s right to protest didn’t extend to taking a knee (on gridiron grass, not a man’s throat) where someone might see him. When people suggest that protest is fine, except for the particular event that’s taking place, they virtually never suggest anything else that might be effective at generating attention or sympathy.