In a society that normalizes white-skin privilege and values the lives of White people more than other racial groups, White allies have long had the unique opportunity to help advance Black-led movements for racial justice. White privilege provides a means for them to insert themselves into spaces that could be fatal for Black people. Their presence in social justice movements has also helped to amplify the visibility of these efforts. Like Black activists, these White protesters also incur the wrath of police and white supremacists, but the color of their skin helps to make the racism, militarism and economic exploitation that Black Americans confront daily more visible to other White Americans.
For over a century, White allies have played a vital part of the movement for social justice in the United States. In 1859, two years before the Civil War, White abolitionist John Brown led an insurrection against slavery in Harpers Ferry, Va. Brown, who had been committed to the antislavery movement for years, had met and found inspiration in Black abolitionists such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. He led attacks on proslavery settlers in Kansas territory, as part of a guerrilla war known as Bleeding Kansas, a struggle to determine whether the future state would allow slavery or be free. Tubman, who helped Brown plan the attack on Harpers Ferry, admired his greatness as one of the few White men who regarded slavery as a matter of life or death. During the 19th century, Brown actively fought to dismantle the institution of slavery.
A century later, White allies once again played an important role in the modern civil rights movement, using their whiteness to fight for freedom and equality for African Americans. They worked to dismantle the system of white supremacy and remnants of slavery under Jim Crow segregation. During the 1960s, the beating and lynching of White activists by Southern officials and the Ku Klux Klan were a catalyst for the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
But such activism had a price. Over the years, White allies have been regarded as “outside agitators” and race traitors. Like Black protesters, some were beaten and others murdered.
In June 1964, three civil rights activists — James Chaney, a Black man from Meridian, Miss., and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two Jewish men from New York — were abducted and murdered in Neshoba County, Miss., by members of the Ku Klux Klan. The men were part of Freedom Summer, whose volunteers were mostly White college students from the North, a campaign by civil rights groups to register Black voters in Mississippi.
The three men were arrested in a traffic stop after they had investigated the burning of a Black church. Their bodies were later found buried in a dam. Their car had been burned and found in a swamp. The murders were a turning point in the movement because they brought national attention to racial violence in the South. The lynching of a Black man by the Klan was not newsworthy — it was a frequent occurrence. But the lynching of two White men made headlines.
A year later, the Rev. James Reeb, a White Unitarian minister, was beaten to death by white supremacists in Selma, Ala., while participating in the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights in March 1965. An all-White jury acquitted the three men charged with his murder.
Two weeks after Reeb’s murder, Viola Liuzzo, a White 39-year-old mother of five from Detroit who had answered the Rev. Martin Luther King’s call to go to Selma, was shot and killed by members of the KKK. She was driving civil rights workers between Selma and Montgomery. The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover blocked the prosecution of her killers and smeared Liuzzo by branding her a communist and a bad mother who deserted her children. The agency falsely accused her of being active in the movement for the purpose of having sexual relations with Black men.
And yet, the brutalization of White people and the creation of White martyrs were both tragic and decisive. They were also strategically important. Television audiences at the time viewed the naked brutality of law enforcement against civil rights protesters, and it made an impact on public opinion and policy. The harassment and assault of White activists drew middle-class White America into the movement. It made White Americans pay more attention and get involved.
Similarly, recent assaults and the abduction of nonviolent demonstrators — including White protesters — in Portland and across the nation have swayed public opinion in favor of the protests. Many Americans were outraged to see Martin Gugino, a 75-year old man, violently pushed to the ground by Buffalo police in June. The woman called “Naked Athena” caught the attention of many as she sat nude in a Portland street, bleeding from the rubber bullets of the police.
The violent assaults on peaceful protesters, journalists and even elected officials by police and white supremacists who pose as protesters or run over anti-racist demonstrators illuminate the brutality that Black people have long faced in their daily lives.
White activists in Portland and in other parts of the country are amplifying the current movement for social change in the United States. Although White allyship is not without its challenges, exemplified by the charges that led to disbanding the Wall of Moms, it has played a vital role in social justice movements for decades. White protesters, especially those who are willing to listen to and learn from Black activists, have a unique opportunity to utilize their privilege for good.