June 24, 2020
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What today’s activists can learn from protests throughout history

The United States was born out of protests and that legacy continues today, says professor Michael G. Long, editor of We the Resistance: Documenting a History of Nonviolent Protest.

"Protest is patriotic," says Michael G. Long. And protesters are "people who are really building a better United States of America." Photo of civil rights protesters in Washington in 1963 via the Library of Congress.

Since May, people have taken to streets across the country to speak out against police brutality after the killing of George Floyd in police custody, and to call for reform and support of the Black Lives Matter movement. These activists show no signs of stopping—much like the many protesters throughout U.S. history who came before them.

That’s why we spoke with Michael G. Long, a professor of religious studies and peace and conflict studies at Elizabethtown College and the editor of We the Resistance: Documenting a History of Nonviolent Protest in the United States. We asked him about how protests throughout the U.S.’s history have shaped our current moment and what activists should know as they move forward and work to change things for the better.

You can learn more about Michael G. Long’s work here.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Renewal Project: What should today’s activists who are on the ground know about historical protests?

Michael G. Long: I think one of the most important lessons is that nonviolent protests historically have been more effective in achieving policy goals than violent protests. And there are a couple of reasons behind that. One is that nonviolent protests tend to be able to attract a more diverse group of participants than violent ones do. These nonviolent protests also tend to be more sustainable than the violent ones are. And I think we’ve seen that in the recent George Floyd protests, where nonviolent protests won the day.

The United States was born in the crucible of protests, and what protesters are doing today is continuing that long rich tradition of people who struggled for equality and justice for all that actually preceded the founding of our Republic.

Another important lesson for nonviolent protesters is to remember that they’re not alone. The United States was born in the crucible of protests, and what protesters are doing today is continuing that long rich tradition of people who struggled for equality and justice for all that actually preceded the founding of our Republic.

The third lesson I think I’d like to highlight is that it’s very important for protesters to remember the need to focus on policy goals. It is one thing to protest—just getting out there and shouting and releasing anger is important in and of itself. Equally important is the need to have a policy goal in mind, an objective that will actually reform a society, and especially that target that you have in mind. It’s one thing I’m saying to yell about police brutality. It’s another thing to protest with a specific demand about police reform. I’d encourage protesters today to think about the policy goals that they want to accomplish and the best ways to accomplish those goals.

You mentioned our roots of protest and that they’re the bedrock of how the country was formed. If activists were to study one specific historical protest or event, which one would you recommend?

I think I would point those who are protesting today to the 1917 Negro Silent Protest Parade in New York City. This is a protest parade that happened in response to racial violence against Black people. The NAACP decided that they needed to do something to center attention to the violence against Black people across the country. So James Weldon Johnson, who wrote The Black National Anthem [titled “Lift Every Voice and Sing”] was at this meeting at the NAACP and he recommended that Black people march.

This was the first mass march by an all Black constituency about brutality against Black people. It was a silent march because they wanted to bear witness to the unspeakable violence against Black people. So on this very hot day in July 1917, 10,000 Black people marched down Fifth Avenue in a silent protest and it got national attention and rightly so.

On July 28, 1917, 10,000 people protesting against the brutality of Black Americans silently marched down Fifth Avenue in New York City. Known as The Negro Silent Protest Parade, author Michael G. Long calls it, "a beautiful moment" in U.S. history. Photo via Library of Congress

Now, at the end of the protest, at the end of the march, the city decided that it would not allow the Black people to rally. What was the reason exactly? I don’t know. But I can tell you that as that protest march came to its conclusion, many of the Black marchers just yelled, and why did they yell? Because this was a time when they stood up and told people in the world that they were no longer going to accept racial violence. It was a beautiful moment, and I wish everyone in the country knew about The 1917 Negro Silent Protest Parade. It’s probably my favorite protest in all of U.S. history.

I’m very excited to share that with our readers. You obviously have expertise in this field, but in your research and editing of this book, what was the most surprising thing you learned?

One of the things I think that surprised me is that children and youth have been an indispensable part of protests throughout U.S. History. Kids, children, and youth have really done remarkable work using protests, marches, rallies, and sit-ins, really to prick the conscience of national adult leaders and to change policies so that we would have the United States where first class citizenship holds for everyone.

So sometimes I think when we look at protests and history, we think mostly about adult leaders like Dr. King. But if we scratch a little bit, we can see that some of the movers and shakers really have been young people and children, and a prime example of this is not only The 1917 Negro Silent Protest Parade where hundreds of children marched, but also the civil rights protests in Birmingham in 1963. The kids stood against that and they got such attention across the world that President Kennedy was forced to go on TV and announced the need for new civil rights legislation. So, one of the things that really surprised me was the presence of children and youth and protest, and not only their presence, but the success that they’ve had through the years to make us a better nation.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your study of U.S. protests?

The most important lesson I’ve learned and my study of U.S. protests is that power, real power, really does lie with the American people. When we think of power in the United States, we often think of it in the shape of a pyramid. And so maybe the president is at the top in many of our minds or maybe Congress or the Supreme court are all there together. And the people who are really at the bottom of that pyramid and that’s OK, that’s a great image. And if you use that image, you can begin to see that if the people at the base of that pyramid start to pull away and start to move their bodies away from the pyramid, the pyramid begins to crumble and the top comes down pretty fast.

Protesting for first class citizenship for all people is a way of demonstrating our love for our country and its commitment to justice and liberty for all.

Power belongs to the people. And so the less cooperative we become with our leadership, the less powerful the leaders are. And we’ve seen this time and again, throughout society. And so when you look at all these protests, it’s always about people deciding that they’ve had enough with the injustice that they’ve been experiencing, whatever that might be. And they’re finally going to stop cooperating with those who’ve been oppressing them. And the moment they stopped cooperating is the moment those leaders fall, and it’s a beautiful moment.

Do you have any other advice you’d give to grassroots activists and community organizers?

I would like them to remember that protest is patriotic. I don’t mean to sound like a bumper sticker slogan. I really do mean that protesting for first class citizenship for all people is a way of demonstrating our love for our country and its commitment to justice and liberty for all. And so I hope grassroots organizers will consider themselves, not only as dissenters, but also as patriots, people who are really building a better United States of America.

Well, I think that’s a lovely way to button it all up. Thank you for your time and for speaking with me.

Caitlin Fairchild

Caitlin Fairchild is the Deputy Editor of The Renewal Project.