Jason Rowland: Your place in history

Wednesday, September 27, 2017 - 5:34pm

Imagine this: It’s a Sunday afternoon and you’re on your way home for the evening. To your annoyance, the route you normally take has more traffic than normal. Initially, the bumper-to-bumper backup is inching along, but it quickly grinds to a complete halt. After a while, you turn on the radio to find out what’s causing the holdup. Surprisingly, you learn it’s not due to an accident or overturned truck; it’s due to a protest organized against racism and discrimination. How would you respond?

Now, how would your response change if this were on March 7, 1965, and the road you were stuck on was Route 80, just outside of Selma, Ala.? The day is “Bloody Sunday,” and activist John Lewis is marching with about 600 protesters from Selma to Montgomery. Regardless of how you claim to feel about the civil rights movement, chances are that your current reaction to anti-racism demonstrations (from Black Lives Matter protests to NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem) would be identical to how you would have reacted during the civil rights movement 50 years ago.

Don’t believe me? According to a Gallup poll conducted in October of 1964, almost three-fourths of Americans believed civil rights demonstrators should stop protesting, despite many of their demands being unfulfilled. Additionally, a New York Times poll conducted during the same year found that a majority of white New Yorkers felt civil rights protesters had gone too far, with common complaints about “negroes receiving ‘everything on a silver platter’” and the growth of perceived “reverse discrimination” against whites. These sentiments are still cited by Americans who denounce efforts to create a more inclusive country, from critics of kneeling to people against affirmative action. Ironically, while these people probably would have been against the civil rights movement had they been alive at the time, they are the first to wistfully compare today’s demonstrations to demonstrations of the past, as if their attitudes would be any different.

In addition to those who are seemingly against any form of protest, there are even more people who support the cause of racial equality but do little to support it. In fact, they’re often more critical of the methods demonstrators use to achieve equality than about the issues being protested in the first place. Usually, you can spot this happening when someone wishes protesters used less obstructive means. While they may explicitly say something along the lines of “I get where they’re coming from, I just wish they didn’t protest like that,” what they’re really saying is “I acknowledge an issue exists, but I’m not willing to do anything to solve it because it doesn’t affect me.” As a result, demonstrators are forced to use “obstructive” methods — blocking roads, holding sit-ins and interrupting the status quo — to ensure people actually listen to them. Otherwise, their message would likely be ignored by the apathetic masses who prioritize their day-to-day convenience above the issues affecting marginalized communities.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously wrote about this in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In the essay, King argued moderates who sit idly by and allow oppression to happen (despite being ostensibly against racism and discrimination), are more dangerous than Klansmen. Those “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who (prefer) a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly say, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’” present the greatest danger to those seeking equality. This is just as true today as it was half a century ago.

All of this begs an important question: How will you be remembered by history? While it was acceptable to be against the civil rights movement in the 1960s, pictures of counterprotesters standing outside of integrated schools draw disgust today. Anybody who currently thinks the civil rights activists were out of line is rightfully seen as bigoted — and I firmly believe 50 years from now, critics of today’s campaigns for racial equality will be seen in the same light. Now is your chance to stand on the right side of history, even if you have to stand alone.