Why Protest Movements Are ‘Civil’ Only in Retrospect

Historians in the News
tags: racism, civil rights, violence, Protest


Whether they involve a rally, a raised fist or a bent knee, protests have always drawn a public backlash. In fact, the very tactics some point to as models now were considered too confrontational then — leading Dr. King, in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” to denounce “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.’”

Carol Faulkner, a historian at Syracuse University, reeled off a list of brutal public responses to peaceful protests as far back as the 1830s, when a white mob tied a rope around the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s waist and dragged him through the streets of Boston, and more than 10,000 people descended on a meeting site for abolitionists in Philadelphia and burned it to the ground.

Nineteenth-century women’s suffragists “went out of their way to present themselves as very middle-class, very respectable, and used the tools of respectable politics,” Dr. Faulkner added. But their message made them targets even when their tools were petitions and town-hall meetings, and those tools were not always effective.

In 1860, the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton addressed the House Judiciary Committee for two hours, after which The New York Times reported, “She was earnest, and eloquent, and plausible, but she must have felt that she was not convincing her audience — and she did not.”

By the time the 19th Amendment was ratified, the movement had split into factions: the moderate National American Woman Suffrage Association, or NAWSA, and the more radical National Woman’s Party. After N.W.P. members burned President Wilson in effigy in February 1919, Mary Garrett Hay of NAWSA said their “outrageous performances” undermined the whole movement.

Yet some of the N.W.P.’s actions — or, more precisely, the police treatment of the women arrested for those actions — helped turn public opinion in the movement’s favor, Dr. Faulkner said, much as the vicious attacks against civil rights protesters did and police crackdowns may be doing now.


Read entire article at The New York Times

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