Steve Haycox: Past protest much easier to support than present

By STEVE HAYCOXAugust 26, 2013 

August 28, next Wednesday, is the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march on Washington, an event rightly being widely celebrated in various media and identified as marking a significant change in the evolution of the civil rights movement. Over 250,000 people gathered along the mall east of the Lincoln Memorial, the largest demonstration in the city's history. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech is noted as the highlight of the day.

America has a long history of protest, much of which is remembered positively for having moved the nation's policies toward more humane treatment of its citizens, the suffragists, for example, and the abolitionists, and the civil rights movement. But in fact, much protest was opposed by a majority of the population when it was taking place. Protest, resistance, is by definition a challenge to the status quo, to people's comfort zones, to someone's power, to the legitimacy of the government's authority. Often enough, it's a violation of the law, the government frequently moving to limit the effect of the protest by constraints it imposes, as in permits to march or demonstrate, routing marches away from city centers, for example, or contracting the time allowed.

President Kennedy initially opposed the March on Washington, fearing that it would become violent and disruptive. Very reluctantly was he brought finally to approve it upon assurances from Bayard Rustin and other organizers that it would be orderly. And orderly it was. Volunteers prepared 80,000 boxed lunches, chartered 2,200 buses, arranged 40 special trains, 22 first aid stations, and 21 portable drinking fountains, all of which suggest the magnitude of the planning. John Lewis reported that at the conclusion of the march, when he and others visited Kennedy in the White House, the President was brimmed with good will because of how well the march had been carried off.

But often protest has not been welcomed, or even tolerated. In Chicago at the 1968 Democratic presidential nominating convention, Mayor Richard J. Daley ordered his police force to disrupt and disperse protestors who had gathered in Lincoln Park; fighting stretched over eight-days. In Seattle in 1999 police battled over 40,000 protestors at the World Trade Organization meetings.

Alaska has not seen much in the way of large scale protests. Most famous perhaps is the Cordova Coal Party in May 1911 when about 300 men of the town shoveled several tons of imported coal into Orca Inlet to protest federal constraints on domestic coal production. In spring 1971 a thousand people marched in downtown Anchorage protesting the planned Cannikin underground nuclear test on Amchitka Island, a civic action encouraged by Alaska's Senator Mike Gravel. A year later about a thousand people again marched in downtown Anchorage to an anti-Vietnam War rally on the Park Strip. The Anchorage Daily Times published a photo of the rally the next day with the caption "Grubs of Alaska."

One might think that a nation born in revolution and nurtured in protest against what opposition leaders characterized as a deliberate tyranny would be more sympathetic to protest. But historians learned long ago that in its beginnings, before it is clear that it can win, only a small minority support revolutionary protest. For most people, the challenge to safety and security posed by radical action is too frightening. And those with the most to lose are often the most vocal in moving to quash the challenge.

The American Revolution is a good example. As Nathaniel Philbrick reminds in his new book "Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution," only when the protestors, whom we call patriots today, put their lives on the line and showed their capacity to withstand concerted counter-revolutionary force, did colonists -- including the timorous people of Boston -- become politicized.

And despite its significance, the March on Washington is much overshadowed by the attempted march from Selma two years later; that was the protest that politicized America on the issue of racial equality. The March on Washington raised national consciousness, but the brutal attack on peaceful, defenseless protestors by Alabama state police and Selma Sheriff Jim Clark's deputized posse outraged a nation's people. Appropriately, the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma was named a national historic landmark just this past March.

Steve Haycox is professor of history emeritus at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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