Unjust Laws and the Movement for Black Lives: A Historical Perspective

Schulte, Max. Rochester City Newspaper. May 30, 2020 https://www.rochestercitynewspaper.com/rochester/ImageArchives?oid=11843129

On September 21, 2020, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis released a summary of the “Combatting Violence, Disorder, and Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act.” This proposed legislation would increase penalties for participation in protests, deny bail to people arrested during a protest, and penalize local jurisdictions for restructuring their police budgets. As a peaceful protester in Rochester, New York, and a former Florida resident, I witnessed news of this new law deflate the spirits of friends and activists tied to the Movement for Black Lives. As a historian, however, I see a parallel between DeSantis’s proposal and 1960s laws designed to criminalize nonviolent protest and incarcerate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, many of the tactics used to undermine the Civil Rights Movement are applied by city and federal agents responding to the Movement for Black Lives. Why? Because they are afraid that we will win.

While Fred Piccolo, the governor’s chief spokesperson, stated these measures were not responses to recent Black Lives Matter protests, Governor DeSantis claimed otherwise. In an interview on the Fox News show Tucker Carlson Tonight, DeSantis called the platform to defund the police an “insane policy” and decried peaceful handling of protestors in Minneapolis who should not “have the ability to run amok.” He promised to revoke bail for anyone arrested in Florida in a protest in which unlawful activity occurred.

Gov. DeSantis tweeted his announcement of new legislation.

Some U.S. cities have passed restrictive protest laws to criminalize strategies typically used by groups affiliated with the Movement for Black Lives such as marching or gathering in groups in the evenings: Louisville, KY, Portland, OR, and Rochester, NY. Vague language, such as the provision against “unlawful assembly” in the State of New York, empowered Rochester police to interpret the law on the fly and fire chemical and sonic weapons onto thousands of peaceful protesters in early September 2020. In one moment, the protest was legal, in the next, thousands of people were declared criminals. DeSantis’s proposal targets “disorderly assembly.” In his description, the new law would allow anyone who attends an assembly of more than seven people in which violence took place (regardless of whether an individual participated in the violence or even knew about it) to be charged with a felony.

Critics have condemned Governor DeSantis’s proposed legislation. The ACLU released a statement calling the bill “undemocratic and hostile to American’s shared values.” And State Representative Anna Eskamani described it as “fascist election stunt trash.”

Meanwhile, Florida faces imminent threats to residents’ well-being. Covid-19 cases are rising, more than 14,000 people have died from coronavirus (as of September 25, 2020), and at least 152,000 Floridians await overdue unemployment benefits. The Republican legislature in Florida has declined to convene a special session to address unemployment and police reform and is not set to meet again until March 2021. Yet some wish to push the “Combatting Violence, Disorder, Looting and Law Enforcement Protection Act” through by holding a special session after the November general election.  

According to Stephanie Porta of Organize Florida, progressives and protesters understand DeSantis’s motives to be about “tamping down protests” over contentious issues beyond police brutality, including the Supreme Court and general election results. By making it a felony to participate in a protest that turns violent, Porta believes this law will “scare people into not using their constitutional rights for freedom of speech.”

History can illuminate a different and potentially more optimistic frame for these draconian measures. The parallels between the Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960s and the 2020 uprising can situate Gov. DeSantis’s proposal in a broader context. Many of the legislative efforts to curtail Black Lives Matter demonstrations parallel efforts made to criminalize nonviolent actions led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and other Civil Rights organizers of the early 1960s.

White Americans Didn’t Like Dr. King Then, But They Love Him Now

When I teach my students about Dr. King, they are primed to see him as a benevolent leader who stood on the right side of history and employed nonviolent tactics to achieve change. Opinion polls show that a majority of Americans share my students’ perspectives. A 2019 Ipsos poll showed that 90% of Americans have a favorable view of Dr. King, while 76% said they believed his message of justice in the 1960s was appropriate for its historical moment.  

In 2012, conservatives in Houston, Texas, invoked Dr. King’s legacy to inspire people to vote Republican.

Billboard in Houston, Texas, funded by a group of conservatives called Raging Elephants, in 2012. Image from Texas Monthly.

Despite conservatives’ attempts to claim King as one of their own, the historical record shows that he was unpopular during his lifetime. In 1963, only 41% of Americans viewed Dr. King positively; by 1968 75% of Americans disapproved of him. A cartoon from 1967 by Charles Brooks, Pulitzer-Prize winning cartoonist in Birmingham, Alabama, illustrates the ways in which Dr. King’s nonviolent protest and vision of justice were conflated with violence and property destruction.

Brooks, Charles, Birmingham News, 1967. See more of Brooks’s cartoons that captured the anti-King sentiment of the era.

Legislative Attempts to Repress Civil Rights Gains in the 1960s

Violence against Civil Rights activists was common in the early 1960s. Civil Rights victories in the 1950s had already threatened white Americans and prompted them to react. The 1954 Brown v. Board decision that struck down school segregation sent white parents scrambling to change laws to preserve their children’s all-white schools—a measure that continues to do violence to Black and brown children to this day. Other white civilians responded with vitriol and harassment. In 1960, when a small group of Black students in Greensboro, North Carolina, started a months-long sit-in at the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter, white patrons harassed demonstrators by outnumbering and surrounding them and pouring ketchup and mustard on their heads.

Sit-in protests at Woolworths drew a crowd of dissidents. Wikimedia Commons.

The nonviolent strategies that appear to be “appropriate” forms of protest to conservatives today were not regarded as such by conservatives in the 1960s. And yet, protests proved that organized, public action could chip away at legal segregation. Woolworth’s desegregated its lunch counters at stores across the United States in July 1960.

In response to successful non-violent demonstrations to end segregation, courts across the South changed local laws to undermine Civil Rights gains and intimidate organizers and activists. For example, an Alabama court ruled in 1956 that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) could not convene in the state (a decision overturned in 1964). In 1961, Freedom Riders traveled via Greyhound Bus to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest segregation and voter suppression. When they disembarked, peaceful protesters were met with brutal violence at the hands of a mob of over 200 white people. The Freedom Riders soon learned that they not only had to contend with violence from local opponents—that went mostly unmitigated by the police—but that they had been banned from the state. Amid the violence, a police officer read the injunction that banned the Freedom Riders from Alabama to one of the organizers, John Lewis, while he lay on the pavement after an attack by white counter-protesters. While it is tempting to focus on the brutality of the mob, police drove the violent response. Law enforcement carried out the city’s injunction that criminalized nonviolent protest and tacitly permitted the violent opposition to continue.

That same year, Dr. King joined the growing presence of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Albany, New York. As the number and visibility of sit-ins and demonstrations increased, so did arrests. In December 1961, King and Ralph Abernathy, alongwith hundreds of others were arrested for parading without a permit. Albany officials negotiated with King: leave the city and we will release the protesters on bail. King left Albany and was later convicted of parading without a permit. When offered the choice to pay $178 or serve 45 days in jail, he and Abernathy chose “jail, no bail.”

Some of the most iconic moments of state violence in the Civil Rights Movement, which galvanized middle-class Americans across the country, took place after—and perhaps, because of—these setbacks.

By 1963, momentum in the Civil Rights Movement was growing, and leaders applied the lessons from the Albany Movement to Birmingham, Alabama— an epicenter of Jim Crow segregation, voter suppression, and racist violence. The organizers’ approach, known as “Project Confrontation,” involved a week-long set of demonstrations over Easter weekend, including the busiest shopping day in the season, Holy Saturday (between Good Friday and Easter Sunday). Demonstrators planned mass meetings, kneel-ins at churches, boycotts, and sit-ins at lunch counters to take place throughout the week. The main event would be Saturday, April 13, when activists would march into downtown to disrupt commerce. Ahead of the weekend, King spoke to crowds about nonviolence, and more residents of Birmingham joined the movement. Afraid of the growing power of the nonviolent demonstrations, the notoriously pro-segregation Bull Connor, Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham, filed an injunction against the marchers. Judge William Jenkins hand-delivered the injunction to King’s hotel. According to a local paper, The Tuscaloosa News, city officials banned “every imaginable form of demonstrations including boycotting, trespassing, parading, picketing, sit-ins, kneel-ins, wade-ins, and the inciting or encouraging of such acts.” Unwilling to be outmaneuvered, organizers continued their campaign. On April 12, 1963, Good Friday, police arrested Dr. King. Jailers denied King a phone call and placed him in solitary confinement. Only after pressure from the Kennedy administration could the Civil Rights leader phone home to his pregnant wife. But the swift and sweeping response from city officials had not silenced the movement; it emboldened it.

In May 1963, a thousand Black students marched in the streets of Birmingham. Hundreds were arrested. Bull Conner empowered fire fighters and police to use violence against peaceful protestors, and the national media printed photos of young people being brutally assaulted by Birmingham police.

Students recoil from high-pressure water hoses used by the Birmingham Fire Department.
Photo by Charles Moore. Fair Use Image.

Historians look to Birmingham in April 1963 as an inflection point of the Movement—evidence of its power to transform not only American society but a call for liberation across the African diaspora. Later that year, nonviolent protests in 186 cities across the United States erupted, and police made 14,733 arrests. Police violence against nonviolent protestors became front-page news, exposing racism in United States for the world to see. In August, 250,000 people descended on the streets of Washington for the now-iconic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Dr. King delivered his “I have a Dream” speech. Organizers like Lorraine Hansberry and A. Phillip Randolph aimed for clear, consistent policy reform from the federal government on down. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became two examples of the legislative success of the Civil Rights Movement, won only after years of persistent, relentless protest.

Unjust Laws and the People who Break Them

While incarcerated for 11 days in Birmingham in 1963, Dr. King penned the now famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” addressed to his fellow Christian Americans who looked at him and saw an extremist who broke the law. King wrote:

One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’

King cited examples of other illegal activities he supported as just: practicing Christianity in Communist countries, assisting Jews during the Holocaust, and aiding runaway enslaved people in the United States.

King criticized the white, Christian moderates who read front-page news of white mob violence against Civil Rights activists, yet told them to “wait” longer for justice. King told them if nonviolence did not lead to justice, “ominous expressions of violence” would be the natural outcome of longstanding repression. He reminded white Americans that many historical figures judged as “extremists” by their contemporaries were, by the 1960s, widely admired: Jesus, Martin Luther, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. Dr. King prompted his audience in 1963, and readers today, to understand that what was once viewed as “extremist” tends to be, retrospectively, understood as good, right, and just in the minds of future generations. As he wrote his letter from solitary confinement in a Birmingham jail, he condemned his white Christian brethren for looking the other way while cities legislated against Civil Rights activism.

To criminalize protest is to criminalize change-making from the bottom up. Cynics may look to the late 1960s and conclude that white supremacy triumphed: after all, by the time Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, the Federal Bureau of Investigation actively conspired undermine him and fracture nonviolent organizations, and the Republican party developed a “Southern Strategy” designed to roll back Civil Rights gains. Nixon campaigned on a “law and order” platform which condemned riots and “those who would destroy America, who would burn it.”

Today, Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is lauded in Composition 101 textbooks as exemplar persuasive writing and in U.S. History textbooks as a foundational text for understanding the Civil Rights Movement. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative educational non-profit, describes Dr. King’s letter as “one of the most important moral treatises of the twentieth century.”

Events of the 1960s reverberate in the Movement for Black Lives since its founding in 2014. The suspicious deaths of Black Lives Matter organizers in Ferguson, Missouri, and recent felony charges for first-degree rioting leveraged at State Representative Attica Scott and Shameka Parrish-Wright in Louisville, Kentucky, indicate a growing trend toward criminalizing protest.

Perhaps Governor DeSantis’s proposal marks an inflection point for the Movement for Black Lives.

King’s words echo in the famous protest song that rang out in the streets of Rochester earlier this month while police fired pepper balls into the crowd of peaceful protestors: “Which side are you on, friend?”

Perhaps knowing this history may assuage despair for the people in the Movement in 2020. First, legislators criminalize the voices of powerful people. They arrest members of impactful organizations. They indict leaders of effective movements. Reactionary measures, like Governor DeSantis’s proposed law, reveal how afraid he is of Black Lives Matter protests. Demonstrations in Minneapolis, Minnesota, for example, have led to major reforms in police practices and police accountability. In New York, the repeal of 50-a makes police misconduct records available to the public; in the wake of evidence that Rochester police murdered Daniel Prude and then covered it up, the police chief and his command staff resigned. In Portland, Oregon, several reforms aim to prevent police brutality and increase transparency between law enforcement and the people they swear an oath to serve. Protest works, and conservatives in Florida know this.

Second, future students of history will likely remember Ron DeSantis the way we remember Bull Conner—as a coward and a bully.

Leaders who create unjust laws—DeSantis in 2020 or Conner in 1963—do not understand that it is our duty to face down such injustices. As a result, it seems likely that police will arrest more peaceful protesters, fire upon more crowds with chemical irritants, and kill more unarmed people before protests abate.

Will this historical perspective bring back Breonna Taylor or Daniel Prude? Will these words bring justice upon the cops who murdered them? No. But perhaps we can draw hope from history. Every time peaceful protestors quote Assata Shakur in the streets—“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains” —they call the ancestors of the Movement into the present. I hear the persistent, prevailing belief that justice and liberation are possible in the voices of D.C. Black Lives Matter activists when they say, “I believe that we will win.”

3 thoughts on “Unjust Laws and the Movement for Black Lives: A Historical Perspective

Add yours

  1. this analysis sets the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter and their controversies in a rich and detailed historical context. Impressive and I learned a lot–excellent example of bringing history to illuminate a contemporary debate. Perfect for teaching purposes.


  2. As a graduate from Alfred and current Social Studies teacher, I loved this! Being able to understand historical context is what connects us to the past, and you do that beautifully here! Thank you.


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