Colin Kaepernick and the Myth of the Good Protest

New Orleans  Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore is a professor of history at Yale. Her op-ed on protest was published in the New York Times and warrants sharing in full because its message of how protest develops from organization and organizing is an essential historical reminder. What follows are Professor Gilmore’s remarks:

Credit Matt Rota

LAST week, the editors of GQ named the quarterback Colin Kaepernick its Citizen of the Year for his work protesting racial injustice. Kaepernick has been heavily criticized by people like President Trump, who claims that an N.F.L. 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 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, Ala., and the student sit-ins at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. 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 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, Va.

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 drew from a long history of struggle. African-Americans had been “stool sitting” since the early 1940s. Howard University students in Washington 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 N.A.A.C.P.

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.


Memorials for the Dead Describe Less than the Full Tragedy

New Orleans  The horrific tragedies of our time call for action that is often unheeded, and it has forced me to think more and more about this puzzle. I have increasingly gravitated to a conclusion that part of the mystery of why this happens is that we inadvertently are allowing ourselves to minimize the impact by only focusing on the dead, leaving in silence the many who are permanently maimed, physically and mentally, and by doing so, silencing their voice.

I was struck by the power of the memorial created by the pastor and congregants of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas after the tragic shooting in their church recently. They made the church itself a memorial with twenty-six white chairs sitting in the church to symbolize their members that lost their lives in the massacre. The dead deserve such a fitting remembrance. To lose life is the loss of everything and the ultimate and permanent tragedy, so let there be no misunderstanding on this score.

But, I couldn’t help thinking about how easy it would have been for them to place another twenty chairs in this space they shared, even if separately, to acknowledge those that were wounded as well. The pain of the experience is also something they will bear for the rest of their lives. Some may heal physically, but the scars of that morning will be etched on both their bodies and minds for the rest of their days.

The shooting at the concert in Las Vegas was, if anything, even more terrible, if decidedly less personal. Fifty-eight people were killed. Lists of other mass shootings rank Vegas as very high in US history. That figure will be repeated forever, but there were four hundred eight-nine people wounded, many of whom will physically be maimed for life. Fifty-eight dead is unimaginable, but 489 is beyond any comprehension. Is their pain not equally worthy of attention? In the events of 9/11, a watershed moment in US history, 2996 were killed, but 6000 were injured both at the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington.

It’s not just gun violence or terrorism, but even highway safety where we are allowed to gloss over the full dimensions of tragedy and silence the demands for change by minimizing the violent impacts. The latest figures from 2015, the National Safety Council counted 38,300 dead, a figure so large that it is past our realistic human ability to internalize, yet how do we absorb the fact that 4.4 million were injured in car crashes, if we even hear or read the figure at all. Globally, 1.3 million die in road crashes – I can’t even call them accidents at this point which would dilute their power even more – and they only estimate the number of injuries at 20 to 50 million, because the fact that many countries are not counting indicates how little we have come to care.

No matter whether we agree on the need to deal with gun and traffic safety or even the steps that guard national security, as a culture we need to come to grips not only with the dead, but also the wounded and injured. We have allowed the dead and their tragedy to become hallowed, because they have no voice and can be revered for their sacrifice and in some ways their silence, and in so doing we have reduced the full dimensions of these tragedies by ignoring those hurt and maimed. In dealing with these issues as a society, we need to recognize the price they continue to pay and allow their voices to be heard more clearly and loudly in the debates over future action.