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Contemporary Implications of Non-Violent Protests

Valasandra Hightower, 3 July 2023

The endorsement of desegregation by government officials during the Civil Rights Movement was necessary but only possible with outside pressure. It was never guaranteed to happen automatically from within the government itself. The retrospective of successful historical social movements holds key lessons that will inform future movements.

The experience of the 1961 Freedom Riders demonstrates that inaction and indifference from the Kennedy administration created an environment of stagnation where the status quo of Jim Crow laws persisted in the South (Nelson). The intention of the Freedom Rides was, ostensibly, to test whether desegregation was happening. The underlying intention was to issue a direct challenge to the administration to act on desegregation. Although the Kennedy administration was aware of the Freedom Riders, the intentional lack of public action enabled local officials to stoke mob violence against the protesters.

The interaction of federal, state, and local governments to allow mob violence to attempt to subdue nonviolent protests during the Civil Rights Movement was intentional. However, this is non-obvious without pointing out how their tactics and forms of inaction created a violent environment for the Freedom Rides. The messaging and tone from government officials at the time, combined with the federal/state prison deal, maintained the status quo rather than changing anything. As Cooper and Khan recount, “Earlier in the year, Kennedy had put forth a civil rights bill that left out the key concern of integrating public facilities. He gave the bill little backing, and it ultimately floundered. But this time would be different. Kennedy worked feverishly to craft a speech that would be the groundwork for new legislation.” (Cooper & Khan) In creating a public image problem for the president, the Freedom Riders successfully forced government action.

Mark Engler takes a more contemporary retrospective on the Civil Rights Movement, comparing the outcomes of those early nonviolent protests to modern social issues. He laments, “Far less often do we seek to understand how social movements propel change.” (Engler) He directs our attention to some common misunderstandings of why the actions worked. History is easily re-imagined and reinterpreted when presented in the media. Steven Schroeder takes a step back and examines the political changes that have happened in the decades since the Civil Rights Movement. He turns Martin Luther King’s assertion that “the arc of history bends toward justice” into an open question. Although he indicates an underlying corruption in contemporary politics, he cites several areas of progress he has witnessed during his career: improvements in diversity parity in his field and public health, especially with issues affecting minority communities. Schroeder concludes that “the arc of history can be bent” and further indicates, “You can help us get there faster by your actions and advocacy, both in your professional and civic lives.”

If modern social movements are examined through the lens of the cause-and-effect of the Civil Rights Movement, then perhaps Schroeder was correct in posing King’s statement as an open question. Indeed, since the early days of nonviolent protests, regressive laws have been enacted and continue to accumulate in response to public action. In 2021 alone, states passed nearly a hundred new anti-protest laws in response to the Juneteenth and pipeline protests. For instance, Florida passed a law that allows felony charges to be made against every individual in a nonviolent protest (Armus). Epstein and Mazzei are quick to point out that although laws already exist to punish rioting, these new bills specifically target people of color and likely violate First Amendment protections (Epstein & Mazzei). It is clear that as protests evolve, so too do the legal mechanisms enacted to quell protests. The public comment section of that article cites feelings of disgust at the disproportionate response of law enforcement to the nonviolent Juneteenth protests as contrasted with the January 6 riot. The efficiency of the legal system against nonviolent people of color echoes that of the hundreds of Freedom Riders incarcerated in 1961.

If this sounds familiar, it is because these new laws intend to preserve the status quo, as the Kennedy administration attempted in its early days. If there were a lesson to be learned, it appears that it was focused on systematically dismantling the legal protections that enable nonviolent protests. Lacking those protections, violent protests become a viable option. In the 1960s, the protesters forced the hand of the government. Six decades later, the government now appears to be attempting to force the hand of the protesters. Thus, Schroeder’s question remains unanswered: “Does the moral arc of history bend toward justice?” Engler aptly quoted Hillary Clinton’s poorly phrased comment, “It took a president to get it done.” She had suggested that the power lies in the office when, in fact, Engler counters that the power lies in the streets (Engler). Perhaps both mistakenly conflate two very different forms of power: the power of authority and the power of protest. If there is a single moral arc, defining its curve is complex, as it is shaped by more than a single power.

Given the dichotomy of modern politics, it may be that today there are two moral arcs bending in opposite directions. The question of justice seems oddly out of place since the justice system is the institution that is now in question. Perhaps the question could be better phrased, “Bend toward equity.” The observations of Epstein and Mazzei would suggest that left untended, one of those moral arcs does not bend toward equity. The public comments on that article further suggest that it does not bend toward justice. As social issues evolve and pressure increases to maintain the status quo, history appears to be on the precipice of repeating itself. If those who write the laws are ignorant of history, the warning is easily brushed aside. An opinion piece by Max Boot points the finger at conservatives with a stark warning of the dangers of dismantling democracy to preserve the status quo (Boot). Schroeder implied a certain amount of regression in recent years but saw that some social progress in his field was able to take root. The current tug of war between the Republican-held states and the Democratic administration has offered no concrete answers to many social issues, only more questions. One lesson we can rely on from the Freedom Rides is that different parts of the government will continue to be leveraged against social change by those in authority. However, it can also open up vulnerabilities that clever forms of protest can exploit. Expanding on Engler, a lack of understanding of how social movements work is a vulnerability to which many people in authority are susceptible. The fabric of social movements exists not only in the social context but also in the legal, technical, and governmental environments, all evolving together. Government, for better or worse, is slow to adapt to change, and there is no guarantee that it will act decisively on any social issue. In the case of decisive action, there is no guarantee the action will be positive. The future of social movements is difficult to predict. However, it may hold some interesting possibilities for the continued evolution and applicability of nonviolent protests as creative minds find new ways to outpace the ability of the government to respond.

Works Cited

Armus, Teo. “Florida GOP says a new law will stop riots. Critics say it’s an ‘outrageous’ ploy to end protests.” The Washington Post, 20 April 2021.

Boot, Max. “Republicans are rewriting the past so they can seize power in the future.” The Washington Post, 15 July 2021.

Cooper, Caroline and Khan, Azmat. “JFK: Civil rights leader or bystander?” America Tonight, AlJazeera America, 25 November 2013.

Engler, Mark. “Social Change is Written in the Streets.” New Internationalist, 1 July 2014.

Epstein, Reid J. and Mazzei, Patricia. “G.O.P. Bills Target Protesters (and Absolve Motorists Who Hit Them).” The New York Times, 21 April 2021.

Nelson, Stanley. Freedom Riders. 2011. American Experience Films. PBS Distribution.

Schroeder, Steven. “Does The Moral Arc of the Universe Really Bend Toward Justice?” J Gen Intern Med, vol. 27, no. 11, November 2012, pp. 1397–1399.

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