The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Critics claim BLM protests were more violent than 1960s civil rights ones. That’s just not true.

But the media coverage of the two eras was quite different

People participate in a Black Lives Matter rally in Brooklyn on June 14, 2020. (Kathy Willens/AP)

Since it emerged in 2014, the Black Lives Matter movement has been compared to the civil rights movement. BLM advocates have argued that it continues past efforts toward racial justice; critics have argued instead that the BLM movement has not lived up to the civil rights movement’s nonviolent standards. In particular, conservative media outlets have charged that, after George Floyd’s murder last summer, BLM-inspired protests were “tearing apart our cities” and argued that it is “not a civil rights movement.

Research has found that the 2020 protests were overwhelmingly peaceful. Here at the Monkey Cage, political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Jeremy Pressman reported that their Crowd Counting Consortium (CCC) found that less than 4 percent of the summer’s protests involved property damage while 1 percent involved police injuries. Other data collections similarly found that 95 percent were peaceful.

How does this compare to civil rights era protests? Our research finds that on every measure available, last year’s BLM protests were more peaceful and less confrontational.

How we did our research

Civil rights protests and demonstrations were the most widespread from 1960 to 1968. From the student sit-in in Greensboro, N.C., on Feb. 1, 1960, to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, civil rights activists took direct action against discrimination. King and other movement leaders argued that protesters’ nonviolence would contrast with their opponents’ violence and would carry tremendous moral authority, even while critics blamed them for the violence.

We compare this period to the 2020 protests using two sources. Data on the 2020 racial justice protests come from the CCC, which relies on volunteers to compile data on U.S. protests since 2017 using online news articles, social media, and first-person reports.

For data on the civil rights movement, we used the Dynamics of Collective Action (DoCA) data set, a well-respected and widely used compendium of protests covered by the New York Times from 1960 to 1995.

From each source, we identified the protests and events focused on racial justice and civil rights. We calculated the percentage that contained mention of any police injuries, crowd injuries, property destruction or arrests.

The Floyd protests started out looking like 1968. They turned into 1964.

Civil rights movement protests were primarily nonviolent, and BLM protests were even more so

During these eight years of civil rights protests, 11 percent of the 2,681 events contained property damage. By contrast, during the 12,839 racial justice protests in 2020, only 4 percent included property damage.

Further, police were injured in 6 percent of the civil rights movement’s protests, but police were reported injured in only 2 percent of the 2020 protests.

Police were also more aggressive during the civil rights movement. Police arrested some protesters in 36 percent of all civil rights movement events but in just 7 percent of the Black Lives Matter protests last year.

Consistent with that, civil rights era protests were more dangerous for protesters than the 2020 protests; for instance, as many know, police fractured John Lewis’s skull when attacking civil rights marchers on the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march in Alabama that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” We found reports of crowd injuries from 12 percent of all civil rights movement protests, compared with only 3 percent of the 2020 protests.

In short, the racial justice protests of 2020 were both less violent and less dangerous than were civil rights-era protests. Black Lives Matter protesters were much less likely to destroy property or injure police and much less likely to be injured or arrested.

After the 2020 protests, Americans think differently about race. That could last generations.

Media coverage of the two movements was quite different

Many nonviolent protests have been highly effective in securing political change. The civil rights movement has become known for nonviolent resistance to police and vigilante violence. As scholars of social movements have found, attacks on protesters may help further movement goals — and that 1960s violence toward marchers helped rouse national and international support.

However, media coverage of the two eras of protest was quite different. During the 1960s civil rights movement, broadcasters united in showing clear and moving images, like that of the 1963 Children’s Crusade, when Birmingham, Ala., schoolchildren skipped classes to march — and police used water cannons and German shepherds to attack them.

But during last year’s BLM protests, when many Americans were at home under pandemic lockdown orders, people sought information from a far more diverse set of broadcast and social media. Some conservative media outlets or social media feeds overemphasized images of burning buildings and violent confrontations between protesters and police, making those aberrations appear to be the norm. President Donald Trump and some conservative pundits then insisted that the protests were dominated by “thugs” and “anarchists.”

These tactics seemed to have worked. According to the Pew Research Center, American support for the Black Lives Matter movement dropped from 67 percent in June 2020 to 55 percent in September 2020. Fully 60 percent of Whites said they supported Black Lives Matter in June 2020, but declined to 45 percent by September; among Republicans, support dropped from 37 percent to 16 percent from June to September 2020. Survey results from Civiqs show that Republican support declined and opposition increased just after Trump spoke about the protests to the nation on June 1.

TMC's Black Lives Matter topic guide offers links to comprehensive political science analysis of the movement.

To be sure, comparing a year of BLM protests to eight years of the civil rights movement is imperfect, and a number of factors may have led to declining support for the Black Lives Matter movement. But our research shows that even what was arguably the most disruptive year of BLM protests to date was more nonviolent than the civil rights era protests.

King famously defended disruptive protest in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” saying that direct action can “dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” Last year’s BLM protests were especially nonviolent. But the conservative news media and the president with his White House megaphone successfully mischaracterized them as violent. That response appears to have undermined the brief widespread outrage at the cellphone video of Floyd’s murder under a policeman’s knee, the racism that act made visible, and the protests that aimed to prompt change.

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Kerby Goff (@kerbygoff) is a PhD candidate in sociology at Pennsylvania State University.

John D. McCarthy is an emeritus distinguished professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University and author of numerous books and articles on social movements, protests, policing, media and collective action.