On Saturday, as protests mounted across the country following the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed explained the large police presence at downtown protests to reporters: “Dr. King would never take a freeway.”
Reed’s claim was historically absurd. Martin Luther King Jr. took many a highway—most famously, perhaps, in the Selma-to-Montgomery march.
Reed is not the only one trafficking in dangerous and distorted ideas of the civil rights movement. Across the political spectrum over the past two years, as Black Lives Matter burst into national consciousness, many commentators—from former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee (who said that King would be appalled by BLM) to Oprah Winfrey (who told young activists “to take note of the strategic, peaceful intention if you want real change” ) and the Rev. Barbara Reynolds (“We were nonviolent activists who won hearts by conveying respectability and changed laws by delivering a message of love and unity”)—have invoked the history of the civil rights movement to chastise Black Lives Matter. They and many others have cast today’s protesters as dangerous and reckless and not living up to the peaceful, respectable, unified legacy of the civil rights movement.
These framings misrepresent the movements that BLM activists are building across the country and the history of the civil rights movement. Such historical revisionism is both dangerous and comfortable—dangerous because it grossly distorts how the civil rights movement actually proceeded, and comfortable because it allows many Americans to keep today’s movement at arm’s length. This repeated comparison has become one of the ways that many justify hand-wringing on the sidelines—as if they would act, given a righteous movement like King's, but today’s activists are simply too excessive, too disruptive and too unrespectable.
Calling out these myths is more than setting the historical record straight. The “propaganda of history,” as W.E.B. Du Bois reminded us a century ago, becomes a way of “giving us a false but pleasurable sense of accomplishment”—for soothing and justifying inaction in the face of persistent racial inequality.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a disruptive consumer boycott that sought to use the power of black consumers to hurt the bus company and force the city to address black demands. The Birmingham, Ala., campaign that King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference waged in 1963 was a campaign of mass civil disobedience designed to overflow the jails and cripple downtown businesses and city function. Key to the work of many civil rights organizations, from SCLC to the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was mass civil disobedience because they understood that injustice would not be changed without disrupting civic and commercial life.
The civil rights movement made most Americans uncomfortable. From presidents to ordinary citizens, many regarded it as “extremism.” People regularly called MLK and Rosa Parks communists and traitors, not just in the South but also in the “liberal” North, for their critiques of police brutality and their support of housing and school desegregation. Although our public imagination focuses on Southern-redneck racism, both Parks and King came to see the white “moderate” as key to the problem. As King wrote from a Birmingham jail in 1963, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens' Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice […] who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’”
Parks spent many decades grappling with how hard it was to be a “troublemaker,” and with the stigmatization and punishment of black people who dissented endured. She noted how those who challenged the racial order as she did were labeled “radicals, soreheads, agitators, troublemakers.” Politically active for two decades before her bus stand (and four decades afterward), Parks despaired for years before the boycott that no mass movement was emerging.
“Such a good job of brainwashing was done on the Negro,” Parks observed, “that a militant Negro was almost a freak of nature to them, many times ridiculed by others of his own group.” She struggled with feeling isolated and crazy, writing how she felt “completely alone and desolate, as if I was descending in a black and bottomless chasm.”
The majority of the American public did not support the civil rights movement while it was happening. In May 1961, in a Gallup survey, only 22 percent of Americans approved of what the Freedom Riders were doing, and 57 percent of Americans said that the sit-ins at lunch counters, freedom buses and other demonstrations by Negroes were hurting the Negro’s chances of being integrated in the South.
Lest we see this as Southerners skewing the national sample, in 1964, a year before the passage of the Voting Rights Act, in a poll conducted by the New York Times, a majority of white people in New York City said the civil rights movement had gone too far: “While denying any deepseated prejudice, a large number of those questioned used the same terms to express their feelings. They spoke of Negroes’ receiving ‘everything on a silver platter’ and of ‘reverse discrimination’ against whites.” Nearly half said that picketing and demonstrations hurt black people’s cause. In 1966, a year after Selma and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, 85 percent of white people and 30 percent of black people nationally believed that demonstrations by black people on civil rights hurt the advancement of civil rights.
The history of the March on Washington is revealing of the federal government’s approach to the movement. Now celebrated as one of the most American events of the 20th century, the march was feared at the time. In a poll a few days before the march, 63 percent of Americans surveyed had an unfavorable opinion, and numerous congressmen denounced the march as decidedly “un-American.”
The FBI surveilled the march’s organization for many months preceding the event. The march was policed like a military battle; in Operation Steep Hill, the Pentagon put 19,000 troops on standby. Five thousand local and suburban police, National Guard troops and Army rangers were given riot-control training and were on duty that day. The Kennedy administration had rigged the microphone so that it could be turned off if that was deemed necessary. In the wake of the march’s success and King’s galvanizing influence, the FBI, with the Kennedy administration’s approval, expanded its surveillance of King.
Forced to leave Montgomery for Detroit in 1957, Rosa Parks found Detroit the “Northern promised land that wasn’t” and continued her activism fighting the racism of the Jim Crow North till her death in 2005. She repeatedly lamented how black movements challenging school and housing segregation, urban renewal, economic injustice and police brutality were opposed in the 1950s and 1960s, and this “resistance to change long beforehand” laid the groundwork for the uprisings of the mid-1960s.
Following the 1965 Watts uprising, King took to the pages of the Saturday Review to criticize the “surprise” evinced by California officials, given long-standing movements in their own backyards. “In my travels in the North,” King said, he had grown “increasingly … disillusioned with the power structures there … [who] showered praise on the heroism of Southern Negroes. Yet when the issues were joined concerning local conditions only the language was polite; the rejection was firm and unequivocal.”
So let’s be clear: Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks and their many comrades were persevering, courageous and disruptive, and they made America uncomfortable—just like many people engaging in BLM movements across the country today. But we have stripped them of this history. By turning civil rights heroes like King and Parks into Thanksgiving Day parade balloons—happy, larger than life and stripped of their substance—we make them “unavailable for where we are now,” as the late Vincent Harding put it, “so we can keep ourselves comfortably distant from the realities [they were] trying to grapple with.”
King certainly did take a freeway. What are we doing?
Jeanne Theoharis is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and author of the award-winning book The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.