What the 1960s civil rights protests can teach us about fighting racism today

Day after day, protests have
arisen in cities across America. The outrage was sparked by video of a white
police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, even as the 46-year-old
black man begged for breath. Floyd was arrested May 25 for allegedly trying to
buy cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill and died after being pinned to the
ground for eight minutes and 46 seconds by the Minneapolis officer’s knee.

That spark easily found both
fresh and long-simmering fuel. Among recent events, white men killed a black
jogger, a white woman called the police on a black birder in New York’s Central Park and the pandemic has taken a disproportionate toll on black
people. Those events underscore centuries of racism that has
limited black people’s access to housing, health services, education and jobs.

The anger, anguish and calls for racial justice that first boiled over in Minneapolis quickly spread coast to coast. While many protests have been peaceful, some have turned violent — instigated sometimes by looters, sometimes by individuals among the protesters and sometimes by law enforcement using force to disperse crowds.

Whether these protests will help
dismantle systemic racial inequities in the United States remains to be seen.
But some lessons and parallels can be drawn from the civil rights protests in
the 1960s, says Princeton University political scientist Omar Wasow. His
research shows that the media covered civil rights protests in the ’60s in
different ways depending on whether protestors were peaceful or violent. And
that coverage shaped public opinion and behavior at the ballot box.

When protestors remained
peaceful, particularly in the face of aggression and violence, the resulting
images shocked a complacent nation into action. But when the protestors
themselves turned violent, even in self-defense, the media message shifted from
a framing around civil rights to one around the need for control, Wasow finds. For
example, Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, triggered a
week of violent protests around the country. Those protests helped Republican candidate Richard Nixon, campaigning on law and order, prevail over
Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey, lead author of the 1964 Civil Rights Act,
in the November presidential election, Wasow reports May 21 in the American
Political Science Review.

Omar Wasow
Princeton University political scientist Omar Wasow’s recent research on civil rights protests in the 1960s suggests that nonviolent protest, especially in the face of aggression, is the best tactic for advancing protesters’ cause.Willi Wong

“An ‘eye for an eye’ in
response to violent repression may be moral, but this research suggests it may
not be strategic,” he writes.

Science News
talked with Wasow about his findings and how they apply to the current
protests. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SN: What was your big question about the protests of the 1960s?

Wasow: A large body of political science finds marginal groups have no
influence. I wanted to see if protesters actually influence politics. I found
that protests could be very influential through their effect on media. If you
think about it, almost nobody directly observes a protest. The way a protest
reaches us is through the news. That coverage varied if the protest was violent
or nonviolent. A nonviolent protest [that made the news] predicted a front-page
headline the next day that mentioned civil rights. When protests escalated to
violence, that predicted a front-page headline with a word like “riot.”

So
a protest influenced media coverage and that coverage influenced public opinion,
or how people responded to survey questions such as: What is the most important
problem in America today?

As
protest activity mobilizes, the percentage of Americans who say civil rights is
the most important problem in America increases. When protests turn violent,
public opinion shifts to concerns about crime and riots.

SN: How
did you evaluate the link between violent versus nonviolent protest and later voting?

Wasow: In the early part of the 1960s, most civil rights protests used nonviolent tactics even when met with police violence. Those events were followed [later in the decade] by a wave of protests that often escalated to protester-initiated violence, peaking when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968.[That coincides with] a big shift in public opinion. In the early part of the 1960s, survey respondents say the most important problem in America is civil rights. But in the late 1960s, we see a spike in concern for crime and riots. That’s a puzzle. Are those shifts at all associated with protest activities on the ground?

In political science, voting is a really important outcome, so that’s what I looked at. The basic framework is we have a county and it is “treated” or “not treated” by a protest. A county is [considered] treated if there is a protest within 100 miles and within two years of an election. I looked at two conditions. Under one, I compared counties treated with nonviolent protests to counties that experienced no nonviolent protests. In the other, I compared counties treated to violent protests to those with no violent protests. I wanted to know: Do the treated counties vote differently than the not treated counties?

In the primary models, I estimate the
effect of protests on voting across the 1964, 1968 and 1972 presidential
elections. These models compare each county to itself over time. In addition,
to try and make better “apples to apples” comparisons, I also used a method
called matching that only compares counties with and without protests that are
very similar on variables such as percent black or percent foreign born.
Another thing I looked at are counties that are 90 percent white. I find that
counties close to nonviolent protest between 1960 and 1972 see increased
Democratic vote share. Conversely, counties close to violent protest vote more
for the Republican Party. That’s likely because, following the 1964 Civil
Rights Act, Democrats tend to be seen as the party of civil rights and
Republicans as the party of law and order.

Selma march in 1965
On March 7, 1965, protestors marched from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., to draw attention to black voting rights. Historical records show that the activists knew police might retaliate, but hoped that images juxtaposing peaceful protestors against violent police might shock the nation. Soon after this photo was taken, police teargassed and beat the protestors. That event and others helped precipitate passage of the Voting Rights Act.Spider Martin/National Archives photo/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

SN: Could something besides protests have influenced
those election results? 

Wasow:
If we had godlike powers, we could
randomly assign which counties to treat with violent or nonviolent protests and
then see what happens in the November vote. Obviously we can’t do that, but we
can look for possible natural experiments. Martin Luther King Jr.’s
assassination in April 1968 sparked many violent protests across the
country, so I could compare what happens when counties did or did not
experience violent protests.

What
I do here, which builds on work by some economists, is use rainfall as
something that might predict protest activity. There’s a lot of work that shows
protest activity is sensitive to weather. More rainfall equals less likelihood
of protest activity. Less rainfall equals more likelihood of protest activity.

Counties that experienced less rainfall were much more likely than those with more rainfall to experience protests following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. So there’s two steps in the process: rainfall’s effect on protest and protests’ effect on voting. If rainfall can predict voting, the only plausible path is through protest activity. There’s not another plausible explanation.

I
also conducted a placebo test. That’s because rainfall is associated with
geography, and geography is also associated with voting behavior. So I asked: Does
rainfall before Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated influence voting in
November? That’s a placebo, like a sugar pill, because we shouldn’t expect it
to have any effect. I find that rainfall before King’s assassination does not
predict voting in November. I also look in the last two weeks of that April after
most violent protests ended. And again, the rainfall in that period doesn’t
predict voting in November. It’s not just rainfall in April. It’s rainfall in
one week of April that predicts voting in November. That allows me to say it’s
not just geography, it’s not just the South is rainier. I make the case that experiencing
a violent protest caused people to vote for order in November.

SN: What role do journalists play in shaping the
narrative around protests?

Wasow: I scanned thousands of newspaper pages and created a
corpus of articles about protests and then asked: If a protest had been
categorized as nonviolent, what sorts of words are commonly used? And similarly,
if a protest had been categorized as violent, what are some of the most common
words?

Nonviolent
protests seem to be covered as if they were traditional attempts to redress
grievances, seek rights. So the words we see are “civil rights,”
“demonstration,” “march,” words that suggest this is a legitimate claim for
rights. When there were violent protests, the words that were commonly used
were things like “riot” and police.”

The
key idea here is people are protesting because they’re angry about some
injustice, but the kinds of tactics employed will focus the media’s attention
on that injustice or, in some cases, shift the focus away from that injustice.
That’s why tactics matter so much. The approach tells the media what to pay
attention to and by telling the media what to pay attention to, protestors are
telling the country what to pay attention to. This finding was revelatory for
me. I didn’t start out thinking this was a study of media.

SN: Do those findings apply to today, given the media
has changed a lot since the ’60s? 

Wasow: Media are much more fragmented than they were in the
1960s. Everybody has their own unique media feed. That’s going to mean that following
the news may be a more siloed experience, where some people are very focused on
activist violence while other people will be much more focused on police
violence. Depending on which channel you watch, depending on who your friends
are on social media, you may be getting very different narratives.

To
be clear, that’s not entirely different from the ’60s. Most of the Southern
media was pro-segregation, and media outside of the South tolerated Jim Crow
and was not interested in the concerns of black people. The idea that there
might be two different visions of what’s happening was not so unlike a black
press that covered the concerns of black people and a white press that was
indifferent or even hostile to those concerns.

SN: What kind of impact could violent protests have on
the 2020 election?  

Wasow: It’s hard for people to appreciate that there’s a set
of voters who are open to concerns about racial equality, but it’s not their
top priority. They also are very concerned about order. Think of somebody who
might be an Obama-turned-Trump voter. In the ’60s, there were people who
supported the Democratic candidate after the passage of the Civil Rights Act [in
July 1964]. But they joined the law and order coalition after the period
between 1964 and 1968 when there was a lot more violent protest. These voters
are influential because they move between parties and because they are in swing
states.

On
the one hand, some whites today have become much more concerned about racial
equality and center their conversation on the underlying injustice against
George Floyd. But it might also be possible that more whites move toward the
law and order coalition and support Trump. I think it’s too early to tell.

SN: Recently,
newspapers have run images of the police taking a knee in solidarity with
protestors. How do you think such imagery affects media attention?

Wasow: My model suggests that peaceful events don’t usually
get as much press because they are less dramatic. But I had to simplify the
model [for this study]. A slightly more complicated version of the model is
that violence is just one way of creating drama. Seeing police behave in a
counter-stereotypic way is dramatic. And consistent with my theory, nonviolent
protest can be effective if it’s able to do something that captures the
attention of the media. Violence is one way of creating spectacle, but it’s not
the only way.

SN: Critics
have said your study puts too much responsibility on protestors. What do you
think?

Wasow: What’s important is the causal story I’m trying to tell. A story that says “this is all about white moderates” deprives the protesters of their agency. I want to begin the story with, despite overwhelming odds, this subordinate group at the margins of society has power. And the question is: How can they use that power to advance their interests most effectively?

SN: What is your advice to today’s protesters?

Wasow: There are two kinds of deep narratives in which we
talk about protests: a rights-, or justice-, framed story or a crime story. That
was true in the ’60s and that’s true now.

In
the 1960s, leaders of the civil rights movement were incredibly focused on how
to get their message out to the whole country and used protest as a means to
gain influence. What they found was that large, peaceful demonstrations without
conflict didn’t interest the press. A New York Times reporter covering a
march in Mississippi said something along the lines of “no blood, no guts, no
glory.” The key idea is that nonviolence was often not enough to generate the
kind of attention that was necessary to create a national crisis.

To
create a sense of crisis, it became necessary to engage in this very strategic
kind of nonviolent protest, which was for protestors to become the object of
state violence. Activists picked places like Birmingham and Selma because there
were these police chiefs with a hair trigger for violence who would engage in
brutal repression in front of cameras. That would shock the conscience of these
otherwise indifferent or even hostile actors outside the South. It changed
public opinion.

If
you’re an activist on the ground thinking about and angry about this injustice
against George Floyd and a long history of police violence in this country
against African Americans, if you want to put that at the center of the
national conversation, it’s important to be thinking about this: Is what we are
doing on the ground elevating the justice frame or elevating the riots frame?