Justice  /  Debunk

Civil-Rights Protests Have Never Been Popular

Activists can’t persuade their contemporaries—they’re aiming at the next generation.
U.S. Marine Corps/Wikimedia

One common response to the national anthem protests originated by Colin Kaepernick is to disparage them as polarizing. Joe Scarborough, host of Morning Joe, summed up this particular critique in a tweet last weekend:

The idea here is that kneeling NFL players are committing an act of such blatant disrespect that they hand Trump an easy image with which to demagogue. Often attendant to the idea that protesting players are shooting themselves in the foot is the notion that in some other era, black protest proved to be a unifying force that altered the psychology of some critical mass of open-minded whites.

David Leonhardt offers a version of this in Monday’s New York Times:

"In one of his first prominent speeches, during the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of 'the glory of America, with all its faults.' At the March on Washington, King described not just a dream but 'a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.' Before finishing, he recited the first seven lines of 'My Country, ’Tis of Thee,' ending with 'Let freedom ring!'

A year-and-a-half later, marchers from Selma to Montgomery carried American flags. Segregationist hecklers along the route held up Confederate flags. Within six months, Lyndon Johnson had signed the Voting Rights Act."

Leonhardt goes on to contrast this species of activism, which aligned “the civil-rights movement with the symbols and ideals of America,” with kneeling during the national anthem, which presumably signals opposition to those same symbols. Leonhardt is sympathetic to the aims of Kaepernick’s protest but he contrasts this “angry” approach with the “smart” approach of the civil-rights movement.