In response to President Trump’s comments last week about how NFL owners should fire players who kneel during the National Anthem, some NFL players did just that over the weekend. And while some contend that such demonstrations hurt the cause of racial justice more than they help—and many claim that they’re tarnishing the sanctity of one of the most popular forms of entertainment in America—history shows that the efficacy of protests cannot be measured by their popularity.
Although activists in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s are generally held in high regard today (Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, and countless of other unsung activists), polling data from the ‘60s show that the majority of Americans felt such protest actions (sit-ins, freedom rides, marches) would hurt, not help, the black struggle for equality. A 1961 Gallup poll found that 57% of Americans felt the freedom buses, sit-ins at lunch counters, and similar tactics by blacks would hurt their chances being integrated in the South. Only 28% of Americans thought these actions would help (and 16% had no opinion). Just before the 1963 March on Washington where King gave the famous Dream speech, Gallup asked a representative sample of adults about the planned protest, and only 23% said they viewed it favorably. In 1964, nearly three-fourths of Americans told Gallup that mass demonstrations by blacks were more likely to hurt than help the fight for equality. A 1966 Harris survey of whites found that 50% believed King was hurting the “Negro cause of civil rights,” while only 36% thought he was helping it (with 14% not sure).
Recognizing the deep opposition to the Civil Rights Movement’s tactics in its day—tactics viewed as useful and necessary today—may help current-day Americans resist hasty condemnations of the tactics of the new Civil Rights Movement we now find ourselves in the midst of.
A core unpopular tactic of black activists today is disruption, a tactic calculated to cut through our collective complacency about the plight of black America. For instance, the Black Lives Matter movement, which has inspired Colin Kaepernick and others, took the fight to end racial oppression to that most hallowed bastion of white yuppiedom: the brunch spot.
Labeled #BlackBrunch on social media, the protests began in Oakland, Calif. in December of 2014 and rapidly spread to San Francisco; New York City; Berkeley, Calif.; Baltimore; and other cities. Protesters, most dressed in black, hit upscale restaurants in traditionally “white spaces” and read the names of blacks killed by police to diners, punctuated with chants of “ashe” (ah-SHAY), a Yoruba word meaning “amen,” or, “so be it.” It upset many diners that impertinent protesters would disrupt the tranquility of their quiche and mimosa sanctuary or besmirch the sanctity of bottomless Bloody Marys. Yet, with megaphones in hand, Black Brunch protesters chanted, “Every 28 hours, a black person in America is killed by the police, a security guard or a self-anointed vigilante. These are our brothers and sisters, our families. Today and every day, we honor their stolen lives: Trayvon Martin, 17—ashe. Tamir Rice, 12—ashe. Aiyana Stanley Jones, 7—ashe.”
By putting protest on the menu, Black Brunch organizers compelled diners to confront the fact that, in the words of Kaepernick, “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
One fair question is whether President Trump’s speeches and tweets have hijacked the protest agenda of players and reframed the issue as an attack by ungrateful black millionaire athletes on the National Anthem or the troops or the flag. Such efforts at reframing are nothing new—meanings are not fixed and frozen. They are prizes in a pitched conflict among groups trying to define their social identity and vindicate their social existence. For some, the subject has changed from racial oppression to the kinds of culture war concerns that play to Trump’s base. But for many others, the core concern of the protests remains as Kaepernick framed it from the outset.
Jody David Armour is the Roy P. Crocker professor of law at the University of Southern California.