One year ago this week, protests erupted in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. After yet another high-profile death of an unarmed black man connected to police, there were riots, peaceful demonstrations and proclamations from activists that black lives matter.
The decentralized Black Lives Matter movement burst onto the national scene following the 2014 police shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo. Since then, activists have protested police brutality by stopping Black Friday sales, shutting down rail stations and becoming a fixture on the presidential campaign trail. They have disrupted Bernie Sanders,confronted Hillary Clinton and protested Donald Trump, leading to tense confrontations and violent reactions.
For these demonstrations, Black Lives Matter activists have received plenty of criticism from political candidates and their supporters and surrogates.
The majority of Americans haven’t embraced the activists’ message or strategies, either; fewer than a third of Americans said Black Lives Matter focuses on real issues of racial discrimination while 55 percent said the movement distracts from those issues, according to a September PBS News Hour/Marist poll. Another poll conducted that month by NBC News and Wall Street Journal found that 32 percent of Americans had mostly positive views of the movement; 29 percent had mostly negative views and 39 percent were neutral.
Such tepid acceptance of black activism isn’t surprising. This country has a history of disapproving of civil rights protests and demonstrations. And perhaps nothing better demonstrates that dynamic than the movement of the 1960s.
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. A review of polling data from the 1960s paints a picture of an America in which the majority of people felt such protest actions would hurt, not help, African Americans’ fight for equality.
These surveys, compiled by Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University, provide a snapshot of the nation’s mood throughout the decade. Collectively, they are “a corrective to the blurring of time,” said Kathleen Weldon of the Roper Center.
“It’s 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,” she said. “Time passes and people can start to intentionally or not rewrite history, particularly around something that seems as amorphous as public opinion — what everyone believed, what everyone thought.”
Recognizing the deep opposition toward the civil rights movement’s tactics in its day — “the things we think of normal today and not controversial” — may cause people to “think through what their opinions are about things today, and why they have those opinions,” said Charles Cobb, who was a field secretary for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s.
Coming to terms with how widespread was the resistance and ambivalence toward civil rights activists is important “because, first of all, it’s the accurate portrayal of history,” said Joyce Ladner, who was deeply involved with SNCC’s organizing in Mississippi.
“When I’m told by people, ‘Thank you for what you did,’ I almost want to look around and see who they’re talking to,” Ladner said.
Ladner said she and others “did it for ourselves. We weren’t aware of history at that time, or that one day it would go down in history, because these events were in the moment. We didn’t have time to focus on long-term strategies.”
Cobb referred to a phrase often used by one of the SNCC’s co-founders, Julian Bond: “He used to say that public opinion about the civil rights movement can be boiled down to one sentence: ‘Rosa sat down, Martin stood up and then the white folks saw the light and saved the day.’ ”
Opposition to the movement
In 1961, mobs in Southern cities attacked Freedom Riders, the activists testing the federal ban on bus segregation. Most Americans weren’t on the activists’ side; 61 percent said they disapproved “of what the ‘Freedom Riders’ are doing,” according to a 1961 Gallup Poll.
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. Just 28 percent of Americans said these actions would help.
Mass demonstrations by blacks were viewed as even less helpful in a Gallup poll taken two years later.
These numbers don’t surprise Cobb, the one-time SNCC field secretary: “It pretty much confirms our sense of public opinion, even back then.”
Ladner, who worked on the March on Washington, also wasn’t shocked by the historical data. “It was going against the grain of tradition,” she said.
The very nature of protest is fighting against the norm, Cobb said. “Whether it’s segregated lunch counters or voting rights or whether it’s police violence — that’s what protest does, and it challenges with varying degrees of intensity the status quo.”
Such numbers show people were “very uncomfortable with protest,” and especially regarding the potential for violence, said Weldon of the Roper Center.
“They weren’t particularly convinced that it was helpful,” she said.
Even the March on Washington — so revered today — wasn’t welcomed.
Just before the 1963 march, Gallup asked a nationally representative sample of adults how they felt about the coming event.
Less than a quarter of Americans said they held favorable opinions.