Civil Rights Protests in the 1960s Changed Attitudes and Voting Patterns

New research presents evidence of the long-term impact of direct action.
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Then-President Barack Obama hugs U.S. Representative John Lewis of Georgia, one of the original marchers at Selma, during an event marking the 50th anniversary of the marches from Selma to Montgomery at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7th, 2015.

Then-President Barack Obama hugs U.S. Representative John Lewis of Georgia, one of the original marchers at Selma, during an event marking the 50th anniversary of the marches from Selma to Montgomery at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7th, 2015.

The first two years of the Trump administration have seen a huge number of political protests, beginning literally the day after his inauguration. Cynics call these demonstrations mere feel-good exercises. But, increasingly, there's evidence that they can make a real impact.

Research released earlier this year suggested such efforts can strongly influence Congressional races. Now, a new study reports they can also create lasting, long-term changes in people's attitudes.

The latest study finds that white residents of counties that experienced civil rights protests in the early to mid-1960s "tend to be more liberal today, especially with respect to racial attitudes."

"They indicate greater support for affirmative action, display less racial resentment, and are more likely to identify as Democrats than whites from counties that did not experience protests," writes Harvard University political scientist Soumyajit Mazumder.

This remains true even "after accounting for a variety of different alternative explanations," Mazumder writes in the American Journal of Political Science. "Civil rights protests seemed to have left a deep political legacy in the United States."

Using Stanford University's Dynamics of Collective Action data set, Mazumder noted all civil rights protests in the U.S. that were reported on by the New York Times between 1960 and 1965. To measure their local impact, he focused on the counties in which they occurred—approximately 9 percent of the total number of counties in the U.S.

Using from data from Harvard's Cooperative Congressional Election Study, he then analyzed surveys taken between 2006 and 2011 that measured political and racial attitudes (and featured responses from more than 157,000 white citizens). Mazumder found that those long-ago marches made a difference that we're still feeling today: "These effects are equivalent to moving from the average level of racial resentment and support for affirmative action in the South to roughly the average level of these variables in the Midwest."

Could these results reflect the fact that white residents, feeling uncomfortable by the changing political environment, moved out of those counties? Perhaps partially: Mazumder found that "protest-affected counties" experienced "a small degree" of white flight in the 1970s.

But he adds this explanation alone cannot fully account for his results, which appear to be "primarily driven through attitudinal change." These altered outlooks, perhaps prompted by the unease locals experienced when peaceful protests were met with brutality and harassment, were then passed down from generation to generation.

"These results provide evidence suggesting that protests can persistently shape a nation's political attitudes," he concludes.

Such encouraging findings raise a tantalizing question: Could contemporary protests—say, #MeToo marches for gender equality—have the same sort of long-term impact? There's a reasonable chance they will, which is one more reason to take to the streets.

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