The year is 1963. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators congregate at the steps of the Washington Monument to advocate for Black rights, both civil and economic.
The year is 2014. Hundreds of activists participate in a protest in Ferguson, Missouri, to call attention to the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer. Both of these marches were peaceful and nonviolent, but the former was venerated while the latter is condemned. The retroactive adjustment of the truth of Black people in protest continues to shape our views of demonstration and its participants.
The methods of Black protesters such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and their followers in the era of the Civil Rights Movement shaped the views of Americans on what demonstration should look like.
On one hand, Martin Luther King Jr. preached peace above retribution. “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon,” he said, “which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”
On the other hand, Malcolm X once said, “A revolution is bloody. Revolution is hostile. Revolution knows no compromise. Revolution overturns and destroys everything that gets in its way. And you, sitting around here like a knot on the wall, saying, ‘I’m going to love these folks no matter how much they hate me.’ No, you need a revolution.”
Their contrary opinions were divisive and created much disunity among Black activists of the time, though we do not remember this to be the case. In a 2016 Political Theory article, University of Texas professor Juliet Hooker asserts that the public mind has edited the civil rights movement into “a romantic narrative […] that results in a teleological account of racial progress and the perfectibility of US democracy,” instead of what it really was: an unending struggle for respect and equality.
This false narrative allows the critics of modern Black protests to contrast those protesters’ style with the romantic myth and find contemporary demonstrations lacking.
Another prominent example of Black people in protest is the controversial Black Lives Matter movement. The campaign began to call attention to the unjust deaths of Black people at the hands of law enforcement. The movement—started by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi—has faced criticism for its violent associates. In 2014, a supporter killed two police officers in New York City and claimed the action as retribution for the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown earlier that year. Leaders such as Rashad Turner have “denounced the violent protesters” of their regions, suggesting that “[t]here are other ways to channel that anger.”
Black protesters are not ignorant of the unending comparisons to historical dissidents. Present-day activists explicitly draw on ideology developed during the civil rights era. They have even organized Freedom Rides inspired by those of 1961.
Yet, Black Lives Matter faces criticism for not living up to the romantic narrative. Today, public opinion of Black protesters is deeply rooted in the idealist fiction of the civil rights era. Communities dehumanize advocates and treat them with scorn for their unwillingness to acquiesce to the historically inaccurate archetype of the pacifist Black demonstrator. Even when protest is peaceful, lingering animosity causes blame to be shifted to those attempting to bring about change.
Education and understanding have been—and remain—the most effective ways of counteracting prejudice. If an accurate narrative of the civil rights movement, not to mention a true understanding of the struggles of Black America, were widely known and accepted, then perhaps a more racially harmonious society could be achieved.
Chicerelli is a student at Bartram Trail High School.