PBS NewsHour


The year's racial justice protests in historical context

Philadelphia protests over the killing of Walter Wallace Jr. represent only the latest in a year of nationwide demonstrations against racism and police violence. The ongoing movement has captured attention and provided political fodder -- but it also reflects a long American history of organizing against injustice. Amna Nawaz talks to author Peniel Joseph of the University of Texas at Austin.

AIRED: October 28, 2020 | 0:05:50

JUDY WOODRUFF: The protests in Philadelphia against police violence are the latest in

a year of nationwide demonstrations against racism and police using excessive force.

Amna Nawaz is back with more on how the protest movement of today takes a page from history.

AMNA NAWAZ: To help us put this moment into context, I'm joined by Peniel Joseph. He's

the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University

of Texas at Austin. He's also the author of "The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary

Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr."

Professor Joseph, welcome to the "NewsHour."

A lot of people are turning to history to better understand what it is we're seeing

right now at this moment in history. When you compare the protests, as you see them

today, and the protests back in the civil rights movement, do you see more similarities

or more differences?

PENIEL JOSEPH, Founding Director, Center for the Study of Race and Democracy: Yes, thank

you for having me, Amna.

I see both. In the context of the 1960s, we did have massive upheavals for racial justice.

Much of that was peaceful. But, at the same time, both during the Kennedy and the Johnson

and the Nixon administrations, we did see urban rebellions in Los Angeles, in Detroit,

in Newark, New Jersey, and Harlem that did spill over into violence.

When we think about the comparisons, though, the numbers of whites who are participating,

Amna, is unprecedented.

So in 1963, for example, there's a 10-week period in the spring of 1963 where we have

over 700 racial justice demonstrations, we have almost 15,000 people arrested. In this

year alone, we have had over 7,000 separate anti-racist, social justice demonstrations

in over 2,400 different locations.

Anywhere upwards of 20 million people have hit the streets to mobilize, organizing both

at the grassroots level and in terms of corporate America, higher education, labor unions, NBA

players, both Black and white and in between.

So, this is unprecedented. We have never seen this kind of white involvement in any social

justice movement in American history, let alone racial justice. So, this is -- we're

in a whole new ballpark.

AMNA NAWAZ: There was, as you mentioned -- decades ago, there was a tension between those calling

for peaceful civil disobedience and those pushing for more aggressive kind of efforts.

And we say today -- when we talk about the Black lives matter marches, we say that they

are largely peaceful, because they are. But they haven't been entirely without violence.

So, when you look at that tension between what's happening now, what happened then,

how do you view that?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, I think there's always been a tension between those who might be

advocating self-defense and those who are advocating just peaceful demonstrations, nonviolence.

And, at times, we saw that tension between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

At the same time, the idea of violence in social justice movements is also way, way

overblown. Of course, you're going to have some fringe activists and some folks who are

going to say violence is going to be used strategically as a weapon of change.

But, by and large, most people are hugely, hugely nonviolent. The biggest violence that

we have seen, quite frankly, over this spring and summer is law enforcement and state-sanctioned

violence, whether that's law enforcement coming from Homeland Security in Portland, Oregon,

whether it's cops in Buffalo who fractured the skull of an elderly person.

And, at times, we have seen white vigilante violence in Kenosha, Wisconsin. So, demonstrators,

for the most part and grassroots organizers all pretty much know that the way in which

you get social change in the United States is nonviolently, through pressuring different

institutions to transform public policies.

AMNA NAWAZ: Let me ask you about public support for these protests, because there has been

a shift that we should note.

If you just look at one state, if you just look at Wisconsin, where Jacob Blake was recently

shot, back in June, you saw 61 percent approval for the protests. By September, that had dropped

to 47 percent. And we saw something similar in history.

You go back to Gallup polls historically, in 1963, 27 percent of people said that they

thought the protests would help racial equality. A year later, that dropped to 16 percent.

Professor Joseph, how do you view the role of public opinion when it comes to these protests?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, public opinion absolutely matters in a democracy like ours.

But, at the same time, historically -- and we have seen it with those numbers that you

just showed, Amna -- historically, public opinion has lagged behind social justice.

So, the public opinion on gay marriage or women having the right to vote or anti-racism

has always lagged behind some kind of national consensus.

So, those numbers aren't that bad. We always have these watershed moments, like this spring,

where you're going to have a lot of support for something. And those numbers are, of course,

going to tick down.

What's important in those numbers is that about half of Americans really support the

BLM movement. And that is much, much bigger support and broader support than we saw for

racial justice in 1963-1964.

So, if anything, this is a new national consensus about Black dignity and Black citizenship,

one that reverberates to all groups, all corners of this country and around the world in a

really positive way.

So, those numbers show us that we really do have this generational opportunity to end

systemic racism, to defeat white supremacy, to achieve our country in a new and different

way for the first time.

AMNA NAWAZ: That is Professor Peniel Joseph from the University of Texas at Austin joining

us tonight.

Thank you so much for your time.

PENIEL JOSEPH: Thanks for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So helpful to have that historical perspective.