How We Misunderstand the History of Black Protest

Protesters gather in a demonstration involved with National Black Solidarity Day in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on January 1, 2014. (Photo: Joe Brusky; Edited: LW / TO)Protesters gather in a demonstration involved with National Black Solidarity Day in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on January 1, 2014. (Photo: Joe Brusky; Edited: LW / TO)

As the Obama era draws to a close, Black protest has resurfaced in a decisive way with the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM), which burst into national consciousness with the protests in Ferguson following the killing of Michael Brown in 2014.

Yet many commentators have criticized the Black Lives Matter movement for failing to emulate the nonviolent tactics and reconciliatory politics that supposedly characterized the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, for example, said the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be “appalled” by Black Lives Matter. Likewise, Sen. Ted Cruz suggested that the movement celebrates the killing of police officers, and Bill O’Reilly compared it to the Ku Klux Klan.

But not only would MLK not be ashamed of the Black Lives Matter protesters, he would be marching alongside them on the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore.

This critique of contemporary protests against police violence is based on a romanticized narrative of the 1960s civil rights protests, and on a misrepresentation of MLK’s politics and tactics. In contrast to the way he is remembered today – as an icon of racial reconciliation who perfected a model of Black protest that both Blacks and whites embraced – in the 1960s, MLK was branded an “outside agitator” and an “extremist.”

Indeed, King’s methods did not seek to evade confrontation. Instead, they were aimed at making visible the state-sanctioned violence through which segregation was upheld in the South by provoking poorly disciplined police forces to attack unarmed, nonviolent protesters. The connection between the 1960s civil rights protests and Black Lives Matter on this score is striking. The police officers in Ferguson who attacked protesters and responded with an over-the-top militarized response to citizens trying to force recognition of their rights were inadvertently repeating the events of Bloody Sunday in 1965 in Selma, when Alabama state troopers attacked unarmed marchers with billy clubs and tear gas. In fact, as the film Selma so powerfully showed, King was criticized at the time for putting Blacks at risk and courting violence. He was viewed as a “professional protester,” moving from city to city where Black protest was about to erupt.