Social Protests and Why They Still Matter

By Naomi M. Butler

The present is beginning to mirror the past. Everywhere you look it seems there is a protest going on. Mass numbers of people taking to the streets in protest, is becoming so common it is starting to feel like the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. Almost seventy years later, it is hard for many to believe that these social protests are becoming so common again. Some people have said that it almost feels like we entered into a time machine that took us back half a century. It would not be quite as dramatic of a comparison if the issues being protested were not essentially the same: human rights, equality, and racism. While the broadness of the topics has evolved, it seems that the minds of many American’s have not. And for this reason, it is important to look at protests of the past and what changes they led to.

During the Civil Rights Movement, social protests took on many forms: The Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956); The Lunch Counter Sit-Ins (1960); The Freedom Rides (1961); and The March on Washington (1963).

The Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955

The Montgomery Bus Boycott was inspired by Rosa Parks, an African-American woman who was arrested on December 1, 1955 when she refused to give her bus seat to a white male passenger in defiance of the racial segregation laws in Montgomery, Alabama. A boycott of the public transit bus system, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  began  on Dec 5, 1955 while at the same time protesters challenged the constitutionality of bus segregation in court. On November 13, 1956, Browder v. Gayle was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that “statutes and ordinances requiring segregation of the white and colored races on the motor buses of a common carrier of passengers in the City of Montgomery and its police jurisdiction violate the due process and equal protection of the law clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.” The boycott officially ended on December 20, 1956, 381 days after it began.

The “Sit-Ins of 1960

The lunch counter sit-ins were started on February 1, 1960 when four black freshmen college students attending North Carolina A&T walked into the local Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, North Carolina. The four students sat down at the “whites-only” lunch counter and asked for coffee as a way to protest the segregation laws. (via civil disobedience) in establishments all over America. While started by four people, this movement was soon joined by over 50,000 students all across the country. Student led organizations were created and if one student was arrested, another student would take their place. No one moved unless forced, arrested, or served food. Eventually, due to the persistence of these protesters many restaurants ended their policies of segregation.

The Freedom Rides of 1961

Despite numerous Supreme Court rulings that segregation of public transportation was unconstitutional, many bus lines and bus stations ignored this. A group known as CORE (Congress on Racial Equality) created by students during the lunch counter sit-ins, organized peaceful protests in which they boarded segregated buses in order to challenge segregation on interstate bus transportation. These students called themselves “The Freedom Riders.” During these rides, some protesters were beaten by white supremacists with chains and sticks. On one trip to Anniston, Alabama a bus full of freedom riders was set on fire. However, despite the danger, members of CORE continued to ride the buses in protest prompting. This prompted Attorney General Robert Kennedy to send Federal Marshals to protect the Freedom Riders. He eventually succeeded in getting the Interstate Commerce Commission to integrate buses, trains and air terminals.  On November 1, 1961, all interstate buses were required to display a certificate that read, “Seating aboard this vehicle is without regard to race, color, creed, or national origin…”

The March on Washington of 1961

After the violence upon protesters during the Birmingham Campaigns in the spring of 1963–a series of protests in Birmingham, Alabama where activists protested against segregation laws in both public and commercial facilities–protesters took to Washington, D.C. to demand civil rights for African-Americans and human rights for the poor. The March, in which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech was one of the largest organized protests in United States history and drew a greater number of protesters estimated between 200,000 and 300,000. King’s inspirational words served as inspiration for current protesters and paved the way for all other civil rights movements to come.

A Current Look at Social Protests

After September 11, the United States’ decision to go to war in Afghanistan let to many Anti-War protests from 2001 to 2014. In 2011, The Occupy Movement began in New York as a protest by working class citizens against Corporate America; In 2012, The Black Lives Matter Movement was started by two African-American women after the killer of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was acquitted; In 2014, days of nationwide protests were sparked by the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown and the subsequent acquittal of the police officer who killed him. In 2015, citizens of Baltimore, Maryland  protested the killing of Freddie Gray by police officers. And most recently in 2016, the Native American protesters at Standing Rock and the nation-wide Anti-Trump protests after the Presidential Election in November, 2016.  

One thing is very clear. People want to speak out about injustice and want their voices heard. They also want to have a platform and use it to make a difference.  What changes it may make is yet to be determined. While some protests may never make a difference, others may go down in the history books as the Civil Disobedience of the 21st century that changed America.

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