Justice  /  Comparison

Campus Protests Are Called Disruptive. So Was the Civil Rights Movement

Like student protesters today, Martin Luther King Jr. and other 1960s civil rights activists were criticized as disruptive and disorderly.

Such popular invocations of the movement miss how the civil rights heroes of the past were viewed as dangerous, disorderly, and unwelcome in their own day. King and others who refused to live by the racial status quo were treated as “extremists” in their time, just like their contemporary counterparts are treated in our time.

Indeed, from the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 on, King understood the need for disruptive protest to upset norms of segregation, poverty, and militarism. And he was criticized for it. Many leaders and commentators chastised King and the bus boycott for hurting the bus company and putting people out of work—and the national NAACP didn’t support the year-long bus boycott, finding it too disruptive, only later taking on the legal case.

Even the march that King would later become most associated with after his assassination–the March on Washington (MOW) on Aug. 28, 1963, of 250,000 people—was not supported by many politicians or most Americans at the time, according a Gallup poll done the week of the march.

Those who opposed civil rights activism were not some Southern fringe. The Chicago Sun Times in 1963 decried the “intimidation” of the MOW. The Chicago Tribune, alongside various Chicago politicians, referred to King as an “outside agitator” when he criticized the city’s deep segregation in 1963, saying it was as bad as Birmingham’s.

As King had said for years: “Racial injustice was not a sectional problem. …De facto segregation of the North was as injurious as the legal segregation of the South.” Indeed, a couple of months before the MOW, on June 12, 1963, Dr. King delivered the commencement address at City College and underscored that point.

Located in the heart of Harlem, City College proclaimed its mission to provide a free excellent higher education to the "whole people" of New York. But in reality, King addressed a nearly all-white crowd of 15,000 people that day. Less than three dozen of the 2,800 students graduating in 1963 were Black, though nearly half of the city’s schools were Black and Puerto Rican. Civil rights advocates, parents, and students had been pointing out the problem for years, including City College’s own Kenneth Clark, a sociologist whose research had been crucial to the Supreme Court’s Brown decision striking down school segregation in 1954.

A month after King’s City College address, Black Brooklynites staged pickets intended to disrupt—and ideally halt—construction work at the Downstate Hospital because construction companies excluded Black workers. Protesters even laid down in front of construction vehicles. Hundreds were arrested day after day.