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Thanks to American high school history classes it is easy for many Americans to remember the Civil Rights Movement as largely just Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech and grainy black and white video clips of police trying to shut down protests. It is more difficult to have a nuanced discussion detailing the harsh reactions many Americans had at the time.
The Southern Poverty Law Center recently highlighted Pew Research Center data from the 1960s and the response may seem similar to anyone watching the #BlackLivesMatter movement unfold. In 1964 63% of American’s thought the Civil Rights Movement “moved too fast”, 58% thought they were violent, and 58% said “they hurt their own cause.” In reality, the Civil Rights Movement was for the most part peaceful civil protest and economic boycott, met with police brutality and provocation, yet it wasn’t reported that way.
During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, from the mid-1950s to the assignation of MLK in 1968, dozens of Civil Rights activists were actively murdered for their participation within the movement. That’s not to mention the myriad of other abuses black Americans and their allies suffered at the time. Sensational acts of violence such as the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham Alabama which killed four little girls and the murder of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia left deep wounds in a movement which struggled to gain mainstream political support.
Despite continued violence against the Civil Rights movement and an inordinate amount of police pressure, the majority of Americans felt the movement was violent and self-destructive. Many who stood opposed to the Civil Rights Movement pointed to groups such as the Black Panthers and Malcom X’s advocating for “Black Rifle Clubs” as proof the Civil Rights Movement had nefarious goals. Compared to the violence experienced in black communities most of the violence perpetrated by those officially affiliated with the Black Panthers and other Black Nationalist groups was a small happening. Yet that small group of people and even smaller number of violent outbursts poisoned the whole pool of public opinion surrounding the Civil Rights movement.
A similar phenomena is occurring today, a small handful of #BlackLivesMatter activists’ behavior has consistently been highlighted as indicative of the whole movement and now has become a scapegoat for emotional statements following police shootings in Dallas Texas and Baton Rogue Lousiana. People like Sean Hannity and other Right Wing Talk Radio hosts have continually pointed to statements such as “pigs in a blanket fry em like bacon” as proof of the movement’s violent intentions. With no real regard to how grassroots and disconnected the movement is, or how singular a moment that chant was, conservative media continually brings it up and uses it to frame the movement as a whole.