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For Most, There's Never a Right Time to Protest

Every important movement faces significant push-back; that doesn't mean it won't succeed.
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"Over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action'; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a 'more convenient season.'"

—Martin Luther King Jr., "Letter From Birmingham Jail," 1963


I've been thinking a lot about Martin Luther King Jr.'s admonishment while observing heated discussions about the wave of protests across the country in the wake of recent grand jury acquittals in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York. Many have complained that looting in Missouri, traffic blocking in New York, divisive protests at National Football League games, student walkouts in Denver, and so forth are unhelpful and counterproductive to the cause of racial equality and harmony. Even if some are legitimately outraged by police violence against unarmed African Americans, they seem to say, why can't those people be more like King, marching peacefully and winning over the majority of sympathetic whites?

It's worth remembering that the civil rights protesters of the 1950s and '60s faced as much derision then as the Ferguson and New York protesters do today ... probably more. In 1964, the American National Election Studies, as part of its biennial survey, began asking Americans whether they thought civil rights leaders "are trying to push too fast, are going too slowly, or are ... moving about the right speed." The responses are most telling. Among whites, 84 percent of Southerners, and 64 percent of non-Southerners, said that civil rights leaders were pushing too fast.

Keep in mind that 1964-65 was probably the crowning period for the Civil Rights Movement. President Lyndon Johnson, a white Texan, had met numerous times with King in the White House and had publicly declared that "we shall overcome" bigotry, borrowing King's own words. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act during this period, bringing an end to centuries of state-sponsored racism. The movement was at the peak of its political legitimacy, and still a majority of whites thought it was pushing too fast. As can be seen in the chart below, it wasn't until 1972 that fewer than a majority of non-Southern whites felt this way, and white Southerners wanted civil rights protesters to slow down into the 1980s.


It's also worth remembering that King himself wasn't always the non-controversial saint he's revered as today. Back in 1966, according to Gallup, 63 percent of Americans had a negative opinion of King, while just 33 percent had a positive opinion of him. Today, 95 percent of Americans hold a positive opinion of King. Also, according to a 1966 Harris poll, 50 percent of whites felt that King was "hurting ... the Negro cause of civil rights," while only 36 percent thought he was helping.

King is remembered very selectively, and conveniently, today by those urging moderation among protestors. But we should remember that King and the movement he led were, even if non-violent, disruptive. They were challenging. They broke laws. They made whites uncomfortable. They saw their greatest political influence at a time when most whites, even in the North, thought they were being too aggressive. Many went to jail. Many were beaten by police officers or mobs. Some died.

Over at Mischiefs of Faction, Jennifer Victor asks why the more recent protest movement doesn't appear to be as effective as the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s was. It's an interesting question. Part of the answer is that this modern movement is still relatively young; the Civil Rights Movement involved over a decade of discrete campaigns designed to make changes in laws. This modern movement could well turn out to be quite effective, perhaps resulting in changes in the training of police officers and their prosecution when police use deadly force against the unarmed.

But if the movement fails to achieve much, it won't be because it got push-back from white moderates. Pretty much every important movement faces that. Some manage to succeed nonetheless.