Historical perspective of marches, protests

Historical perspective of this moment
Historical perspective of this moment

HOUSTON – Protests nationwide in response to the death of George Floyd have rekindled conversation and debate about the role marches play in encouraging change.

Rebellion in the United States is nothing new and helped to spark the movement that became the American Revolution.

Moreover, images of protest against racial injustices helped shape the public’s understanding of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Similar responses to Floyd’s death provide a link to marches of the past. They also speak to stark differences, say, historians, between both eras.

“What we’re seeing right now, it’s extenuating circumstances. It’s something beyond the pale, where millions of Americans and people from beyond our borders were able to watch a black man, who was unarmed, be murdered in plain view,” said Dr. Karen Kossie-Chernyshev, a history professor at Texas Southern University.

Video shows Floyd, 46, being pinned under the knees of white police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, sparked international outrage over how officers handled Floyd as he pleaded that he could not breathe.

“Anytime you have the loss of life age there’s reaction to the loss of life in a very brutal and heinous way, what we should expect is for people to stop and say something is really wrong here,” said Dr. Kossie-Chernyshev, adding the response is also an overarching rebuke of police misconduct involving interactions with black men.

“We have to really think about how police officers are trained and we have to also think about making sure that not allowing in the various forces activities to go on,” she said.

Dr. Kossie-Chernyshev said inroads were made following protests in the 1960s, including access to education, but “at the same time, a lot of the micro-aggressions that African-Americans have always faced, they’re still there,” she said.

“The riots in these various places -- they didn’t just emerge. It was the pressure people were enduring at every level,” Dr. Kossie-Chernyshev said, highlighting the intersection of race and economic standing that further fueled frustration.

There are parallels between protests today — and those of the Civil Rights era — nuance, too.

It’s the differences between now and then that’s the teachable moment, said Dr. Gerald Horne, professor of history, University of Houston. Dr. Horne is author of “Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising And The 1960s,” a historical account of the 1965 event in Watts, California.

Horne said protests following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 are the closet comparison to this past weekend with protests occurring in cities nationwide.

What’s the biggest difference now?

“You don’t really have an organization. Some people see that as a strength. But on the other have what that means is much difficult to control what’s going on in the streets,” Dr. Horne said.

For instance, Horne said, cases of vandalism and looting — and the debate over who’s doing the vandalism — takes away from the message those nonviolently protesting are pushing. Horne said the presence of a centralized leadership within today’s movement would help clear any confusion.

“Plus it becomes very difficult to maintain momentum,” he said, adding, “it’s difficult for you to plan as to where things are going.”

Both professors say a good change is reach with protests taking place internationally.

“That global aspect is critical, it seems to me, but on the other hand, and unfortunately like 1965 and 1968, you don’t really have an organization,” Dr. Horne said.

Horne said history speaks to the need for organization, especially after protests have ended without a clear plan for policy reform.

“That only sets the stage for the next George Floyd. It sets the stage for the next Eric Garner. It sets the stage for the next Philando Castile. We can’t go on like this,” he said.

About the Author:

Emmy and Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. NOLA born and bred, though #HoustonStrong, with stops in Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut in along the way.