Mug shots of Freedom Riders, who were arrested in 1961 in Jackson, Miss., for "breach of peace" and refusal to obey a police order after they attempted to use "whites only" restrooms and lunch counters.

Chart of the Day: Civil rights protests have never been palatable to white people

White people have been racist for a very long time. White people have also long been delusional about this fact. Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee co-founder Julian Bond once said that public opinion about the civil rights movement could be boiled down to one sentence: “Rosa sat down, Martin stood up and then the White folks saw the light and saved the day.” A new Washington Post review of polling data challenges that false narrative.

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 4.18.41 PMThe review of national polls from the 1960s tells us that the majority of Americans thought protest actions were harmful, not helpful to Black Americans’ fight for equality. According to a Gallup Poll in 1961, as mobs in the South attacked Freedom Riders (the activists testing the federal ban on bus segregation), 61% of Americans said that they disapproved “of what the ‘Freedom Riders’ are doing.”

That same poll found that 57 percent of Americans felt the “Freedom buses,” sit-ins at lunch counters and “other demonstrations” by African-Americans would hurt their chances of being integrated in the South. As Elahe Izadi reports, less than a quarter of Americans held favorable opinions even on the March on Washington, which is so revered by white folks today. This picture of America is eerily similar to today’s where the movement for Black lives, led—like past movements—by women, is routinely critiqued by even liberal candidates and politicians.

Izadi reminds us that a year ago this month, protests erupted in Baltimore, Maryland where Freddie Gray had become another unarmed Black person killed in police custody. There were direct actions across the city, which some people angrily labeled “riots” and some called “peaceful demonstrations.” In both cases, these were led by young women reminding their city—like the young women reminding Ferguson, and Chicago, and their presidential candidates—that Black Lives would matter but the status quo would not. And in all of these cases, they left many people around them very unhappy.

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 4.19.34 PMWhat was striking, goofy, and infuriating all at once about these unhappy people was that they could not and would not admit that they were racist. Rather, their critique focused on the “tactics” of these young people protesting, and patronizingly compared their “aggression” to the more “peaceful” civil rights movement of MLK. Nowhere did I see this more clearly than here in DC where white people scoffed at DCFerguson activists protesting against policy brutality but went to visit the MLK memorial down the street; where white parents flipped off the young people holding “Black Lives Matter” signs for blocking the highway that lead them to where MLK stood on the National Mall for the March On Washington.

Time and time again, in criticizing us, these white people said that they would obviously support the cause if only activists were “less divisive” and “more like MLK.” We called bullshit. And here’s the research to back it up.

As Izadi writes:

Today, sit-ins, freedom rides and marches for voting rights are viewed with historical reverence. Schoolchildren across the country memorize Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Conservatives invoke the moral authority of the civil rights movement as a model for their own activism. Civil rights workers are viewed as national heroes.

But in their day, activists were met with widespread disapproval. [...The surveys show] “a very clear picture — and not necessarily the picture we like to lay back on time that we see from today; it’s not necessarily the story we tell ourselves.”

The public today—just like the public then—doesn’t oppose racial justice movements because of their “strategies.” They oppose Black Lives Matter (and most other anti-violence movements) because they themselves don’t feel affected by the violence central to the protests, whether segregation in the 1960s or police brutality today. Liberal folks today could certainly benefit from relearning this history. Maybe then rather than lecturing the queer women of color demanding a shift in power about “more productive” forms of protest, we would realize that no disruption of the status quo has ever been seen as palatable. Read the rest of Izadi’s piece and check out the accompanying data here. 

Mahroh is a community organizer and law student who believes in building a world where black and brown women and our communities are able to live free of violence. Prior to law school, Mahroh was the Executive Director of Know Your IX, a national survivor- and youth-led organization empowering students to end gender violence and a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her research addresses the ways militarization, racism, and sexual violence impact communities of color transnationally.

Mahroh is currently at Harvard Law School, organizing against state and gender-based violence.

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