We’ve all probably seen some kind of documentary about the civil rights movement and scoffed at the ignorant white person who complained that the movement was “moving too fast” or that they were going to alienate people with their tactics. It’s safe and comfortable and we have the distance of history and hindsight that allows us to admire their bravery and support their efforts.
I’ve written before about how the Black Lives Matter movement is today’s test for white people as to whether we are going to be the white person scoffing in that documentary, or we are going to actively support this new civil rights movement and work to bring other white people along. Some new polling shows the parallels in public attitudes between our current moment and the peak of the civil rights movement:
According to the American National Election Studies, 57 percent of Americans in 1964 said most of black people’s actions during the civil rights movement in the most recent year were violent. Sixty-three percent of Americans believed the civil rights movement was moving “too fast.” And a majority of Americans (58 percent) believed that black people’s actions for the movement hurt their own cause.
And just a reminder: Two of the key actions by civil rights activists in 1963 were the March on Washington, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech; and “Bloody Sunday,” when Alabama state troopers brutally beat peaceful protesters attempting to march from Selma to Montgomery for their right to vote.
But Americans today share similar attitudes toward the Black Lives Matter movement.
You can find more details on the polling here. It serves as an important reminder that we need to step back and think about how this movement will fit in the arc of history and what we want our relationship with it to be.
Black-led movements for racial justice are probably going to make white people uncomfortable. We need to push past that discomfort, value black leadership in making the decisions about the direction of the movement, and as Ann Friedman writes, “get over white feelings and start taking action for black lives”:
There’s a protest sign I’ve seen at several marches and sit-ins this summer that reads, “Black lives matter more than white feelings.” If, like me, you’re a white person who believes deeply that black lives matter, it’s easy to read that sign as commentary on other white people — the ones who support Donald Trump because they “feel voiceless.” The Republican National Convention a few weeks ago was essentially thousands of white people in a stadium expressing their anger and fear. As Newt Gingrich said afterward on CNN, “Liberals have a whole set of statistics, which theoretically may be right, but that’s not where human beings are.”
But the white feelings called into question by that protest sign aren’t just the anger and alienation of Trump supporters. They are also the fear and guilt and perceived helplessness of white people who want to end the epidemic of state-sanctioned violence against black Americans. People like me and you and every white person we know who posts messages of grief each time a new name becomes a hashtag. It’s easy for us to stand back and criticize Trump supporters for putting anger and fear above facts. It can be much harder for white people who support racial justice to realize just how hung up on our own feelings we are.