By Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore
The editors of GQ named the quarterback Colin Kaepernick its Citizen of the Year for his work protesting racial injustice. Mr. Kaepernick has been heavily criticized by people like President Trump, who claims that an NFL player who kneels during the playing of the national anthem “disrespects our flag” and should be fired. Others argue that he is out of bounds as an activist who mixes sports with politics.
The problem is that Mr. Kaepernick’s critics, and most of America, don’t really understand how protests work. Our textbooks and national mythology celebrate moments when single acts of civil disobedience, untainted by political organizations, seemed to change the course of history. But the ideal of the “good” protest—one that materialized from an individual’s epiphany—is a fantasy. More often, effective protest is like Mr. Kaepernick’s: it’s collective, and contingent, and all about long and difficult struggles.
Consider what most Americans would agree were two “good” protests: Rosa Parks’s refusal to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and the student sit-ins at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Parks, the story goes, was exhausted from a day’s work and took a seat in the “whites only” section. To the astonishment of onlookers, she refused to give up her seat when asked. In Greensboro, black college students decided to eat at the local five-and-dime and initiated the first sit-in at a segregated Southern restaurant. They were idealistic and perhaps naïve.
These stories follow a set narrative. They are “firsts”: the first time a black woman refused to give up her seat; or the first time students staged a sit-in. They seemed to arise spontaneously when someone fed up with unfair treatment couldn’t take it anymore. “Good” protesters act as individual citizens, untainted by associations with suspect political organizations.
The trouble is that these stories are historically inaccurate and obscure just how protest in the 20th century forged a more democratic country. A narrative with greater accuracy would allow us to better evaluate protests against racial discrimination. Earlier protests, similar to the one that Mr. Kaepernick started, sprang from protesters’ associations with activist organizations, were deeply political rather than individual, and played out in unfamiliar venues in new forms.
Protests that change history have their own long histories. They are almost never the first of their kind. Successful protesters plan campaigns, rather than respond to oppression in a single, spontaneous act. Protesters often belong to organizations that lend theoretical, moral and logistical support. Protests don’t reveal previously hidden wrongs to an unaware public. Instead, they cast those wrongs in a new light. They fail, time and time again. When they succeed, they win only partial victories.
Rosa Parks, for example, was a trained civil rights activist. She built on efforts that started in the 19th century to desegregate transportation and gained speed in the 1930s. In 1940, for example, Pauli Murray, a black woman, refused to give up her seat on a bus in Petersburg, Virginia.
Though most Americans today look back on the desegregation of public transportation with pride, most white Southerners opposed it vehemently, and many did so violently. During World War II, white passengers and bus drivers beat uniformed black soldiers who tried to integrate buses.
A. Philip Randolph knew that the emergency of war meant that these instances of discrimination ran counter to the nation’s interests. Randolph drew on his long experience as a labor leader to found the March on Washington Movement in 1941. The movement threatened to bring millions of African-Americans to Washington to protest. When President Franklin Roosevelt promised reforms, Randolph called off the march.
Throughout the war, the movement continued to train people who became civil rights protesters in the 1950s, including Pauli Murray. This pressure influenced the Supreme Court in 1946, which ordered desegregation on interstate buses in Morgan v. Virginia. That case set a precedent that Parks strategically worked to extend to local and state laws in Montgomery.
Just as Parks had done, the students sitting-in at the Woolworth counter in Greensboro, NC drew from a long history of struggle. African-Americans had been “stool sitting” since the early 1940s. Howard University students in Washington, DC staged some of the first sit-ins, which involved movement-trained protesters led by Murray. Those sit-ins aimed at national chain stores that operated outside the South, just as the Greensboro sit-ins purposefully did later. The Greensboro students knew all of this, because they were advised by the legendary organizer Ella Baker.
White Americans’ deep investment in the myth that the civil rights movement quickly succeeded based on individual protests has left the impression that organizations such as Black Lives Matter are counterproductive, even sinister. The same things were said of the NAACP.
Just as football players kneeling during the national anthem today must repeatedly insist that they are not protesting the flag, Parks and the Greensboro students had to fight against efforts to play down the stakes of their protests. Parks’s action was not about a seat in the front of the bus. It was about Jim Crow, a legal and social system of degradation. And as Baker argued in her speech “Bigger Than a Hamburger,” the Greensboro sit-ins marked the beginning of a fight for education, voting rights, and economic opportunity.
Rosa Parks was a hero. So were the students who sat in at the Woolworth lunch counters. But they knew that their heroism was possible only because of decades of what Baker called “spade work.” They knew that organizations to which they belonged and that gave them strength were the most recent manifestations of decades of struggle.
—Dr. Glenda Gilmore is a professor of history at Yale and a co-author most recently of These United States: A Nation in the Making, 1890 to the Present. She wrote this commentary for the New York Times.