Black Lives Matter protests have produced one spectacle after another. Peaceful demonstrations in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., were followed by riots in which police and activists clashed. Many Americans, weaned on tales of how 20th-century civil rights leaders used nonviolent resistance, criticize today’s advocates for “extreme” tactics and accuse them of inciting violence. Even Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece, Alveda King, called BLM’s methods inappropriate. Mike Huckabee said the civil rights leader would be “appalled” by BLM’s strategy: To address racial injustice, “you don’t do it by magnifying the problems,” he said.
But magnifying the problems was King’s key strategy, and he received the same admonishments. Protesters who marched in the streets of America’s most staunchly racist cities and towns were attacked by police dogs, their clothing was tattered by high-pressure fire hoses, and their lives were taken by police officers’ bullets. Alarmed by what they saw, eight liberal, white clergymen wrote a public statement in 1963, calling King’s movement foolish and counterproductive. They sympathized with his cause but said his actions were too aggressive, too disruptive and drove people to violent uprising. The clergymen urged black Americans to reject King’s leadership and adopt peaceful means to achieve racial equality. King’s “nonviolent” movement, they said, was anything but.
King’s response, written while he was detained in Alabama, was the famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” He wrote that, in fighting racial injustice, the goal of his demonstrations was “so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” In other words, violence was not something that simply happened to activists; they invited it. Violence was critical to the success of the 1960s civil rights movement, as it has been to every step of racial progress in U.S. history.
As much as BLM’s opponents and supporters (who insist that “this ain’t yo mama’s civil rights movement”) differentiate it from the 1960s effort, these two historical moments have a lot in common. Both have been opposed by more than half of Americans, both have needed violent confrontations to attract national media attention, and both have been criticized for their combative tactics. Whether in the 1960s or the 2010s, the aggressive disruption of American race relations has caused the same anger and fear — from Northerners and Southerners, from blacks and whites, from liberal “allies” and racist adversaries.
Today, King is remembered for “I have a dream” and “the content of their character.” For our purposes, he’s about nonviolence, turning the other cheek and loving thy enemy. In contemporary textbooks and collective memory, his was a nonconfrontational, even passive approach.
But the civil rights movement wasn’t seen as nonviolent in its day — and for good reason. The most jarring evidence of this came just a month after King’s Birmingham jail letter. In May 1963, movement organizers assembled black children , some still in pigtails, to march through the streets of Birmingham and confront Bull Connor’s violent police force. It was a controversial tactic within the movement, but organizers must have known that images of jailed, beaten and cowering children would affect hearts, force a response from officials and move the movement toward its goals.
“They couldn’t have been ignorant of the terrible response,” says King biographer and New York University historian David Levering Lewis. “King and his inner circle appreciated the probable certainty of violence on the part of the establishment to trigger responses that they wanted, in terms of legislation and policies.” The children called it “D-Day.”
Connor didn’t disappoint. He attacked the marchers with German shepherds and baton-wielding policemen. Connor’s army funneled hundreds of children and teenagers into overcrowded jail cells. Still, the kids returned to the streets the next day. And the day after that. Malcolm X, whom history treats as the movement’s violent alter ego, criticized King for the event, saying that “real men don’t put their children on the firing line.” King, on the other hand, called it “one of the wisest moves we made.”
The Children’s Crusade changed the way the movement was covered by the press. Where the crushing effects of segregated schools hadn’t won hearts, where brutal, state-sanctioned beatings of hymn-singing black men and women hadn’t gained sympathy, the nation couldn’t ignore the images of children recoiling from the raised batons of sneering police officers. Only the most distressing type of violence worked.
This was King’s strategy. “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” he said — an aggressive and confrontational stance that Americans rejected at the time and have forgotten today. Most people, including Northerners, opposed King’s March on Washington, fearing that it was a call to uprising. A Gallup poll conducted in May 1963, the same month as the Children’s Crusade, found that 46 percent of Americans held an unfavorable view of King. The only public figure more disliked in the poll was Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. By 1966, more than two-thirds of Americans had an unfavorable view of the civil rights leader.
Black Lives Matter doesn’t fare much better: In a September PBS-Marist poll, 59 percent of white Americans said BLM is a distraction and, in response to a separate question, 41 percent said it advocates violence (16 percent said they were unsure whether it does).
King, likewise, faced editorials admonishing him for provoking riots and isolating those sympathetic to his cause with his “excessive” demonstrations. Progressive white Americans, who distinguished themselves from the “bigots and hatemongers” in the South, turned against King when he came into their de facto segregated neighborhoods to protest racist housing practices — in much the same way Bernie Sanders supporters slammed the “extreme” tactics of activists who took the presidential candidate’s stage in August to demand that he address systemic racism.
Even black Americans criticized King’s strategy. In response to a demonstration that turned violent in Memphis in 1968, a black man penned a derisive letter to King, blaming him for the death of a 16-year-old boy who was shot by a police officer in the chaos that followed the protest. “I know that you think that you are helping all of us Negroes,” the man wrote, adding: “After knowing the honest truth about this and many other deaths caused by your calm riots, we as a body had rather not have any thing else to do with you or your so called righteous riots or better, righteous murders.”
Similarly, many have held today’s movement responsible for the burned buildings, broken windows and police and civilian deaths that followed protests during the past year. Yet history shows that this violence is the inevitable consequence of challenging the racial status quo.
Public opinion of King turned 180 degrees in just two decades. In 1986, he was given a national holiday, and a year later, more than three-quarters of white Americans had a favorable view of him, according to Gallup. As Oakland University political science professor Sheldon Appleton has noted, our collective ignorance is largely to blame. Just 30 years after the March on Washington, 57 percent of white Americans admitted knowing little or nothing about the event. By that point, it was easiest simply to believe that racial justice had been achieved peacefully and that the civil rights movement had solved our racial problems.
No wonder so many today dismiss the need for another civil rights movement and contrast BLM’s aggression and violence with the earlier movement. “It’s whitewashing not just King the person, but also of what the movement was challenging and how vicious the opposition was,” says historian Jeanne Theoharis, who notes that Rosa Parks has received similar treatment. “We’ve made them comfortable to us. They make us feel good about our past.”
Certainly, nonviolence was a central theme in King’s rhetoric — and a kind of spiritual philosophy. The preacher was heavily influenced by Mohandas Gandhi, and he called nonviolence the only moral means for fighting oppression. But he learned that, as a tactic, nonviolence was useless without violence.
That lesson came in Albany, Ga., where police chief Laurie Pritchett ordered his officers to arrest civil rights protesters peacefully, without bully clubs or fire hoses. As a result, Albany’s streets remained placid; the town produced no disturbing images to generate national attention and pressure its officials. After seven months of demonstrations, starting in late 1961, Albany remained as segregated as it was when activists arrived. “This is when he [King] became convinced that he . . . had to find a gut segregationist who would think nothing of clubbing black people on the head,” Gene Roberts, who covered the civil rights movement for the New York Times, recalled in a recorded interview by the Newseum.
That’s when the movement moved to Alabama and confronted Bull Connor.
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It’s rare that social progress comes without force — typically violent force. Gay and transgender Americans fought police and rioted in New York and San Francisco to overthrow homophobic policies. Violent labor riots helped end unsafe work conditions. Slavery in the United States ended only after the deadliest war in the nation’s history.
We remember, even celebrate, the by-any-means-necessary grit of the people who ultimately made American lives better in these historic moments. But when it comes to the American fight for racial equality, we bury the truth about the tactics that are necessary for progress. We’ve convinced ourselves that racism can be eradicated passively, without aggression or violence. “As America progressed, violence was always part of it,” says St. Louis University historian Stefan Bradley, who studies black youth activism. “No other movement in history has ever been held to these standards.”
Black Americans have peacefully protested police brutality for decades. It was a regular subject of hip-hop lyrics during the 1980s. Nonviolent protests followed numerous deaths of unarmed black people in the 1990s and 2000s: Amadou Diallo in 1999, Sean Bell in 2006, Oscar Grant in 2009. But no substantive changes in police operations resulted.
King, we’ve convinced ourselves, is proof that any lingering racism can be eliminated without tumult. Yet the civil rights movement was one of the most violent moments in American history. As the Rev. Jesse Jackson recalls, the tactics of the 1960s demonstrators “worked very well because the violent forces against us weren’t able to justify attacking us.” While the activists’ nonviolent response magnified the brutality, the aggressive reaction of today’s protesters has proved effective as well. “The police overreaction, the tear gas — that’s what made Ferguson,” Jackson says.
Black Lives Matter has more in common with the civil rights movement than we’d like to acknowledge. It fights the same injustices and encounters the same resistance. The truth is, if you oppose Black Lives Matter’s tactics, you would have abhorred King’s.