My maternal grandmother was not a bigot. By this, I simply mean that she was not the kind of person who would have verbally assaulted black children on their way into newly-desegregated schools.
But when the sit-ins began in Nashville in February of 1960, though she would have never joined the white mobs who poured milkshakes on the heads of protesters or put out cigarettes on their bare skin, she was no more supportive of those activists than the whites who did all that and more.
The sit-ins were the very model of peaceful protest. They have been heralded as such by historians and movement strategists around the world ever since. And yet, the moral weight of their non-violent tactics did not move her. Though a decent and kind woman in her better moments, she was from the standard Southern school of thought at the time, which, it should be noted, enrolled not merely southerners. It was a school whose white students had learned to leave well enough alone and who never could ascertain what all the fuss was about.
So when the movement emerged that February, my grandmother, as the story goes, expressed her displeasure, even if only within her own home. Not because there had been violence from the protesters, for there hadn’t been. There had been no hostility aimed at white folks, no looting, no rioting — nothing but well-dressed young people getting pummeled and cursed and arrested by segregationist thugs — and yet, she could not abide their actions. And why? Because the sit-ins would make it impossible for her to go downtown to shop on the weekend. It would make such a sojourn less pleasurable. It would be inconvenient. It would, in short, spoil the mood.
I thought of this history a few years ago when a FOX News commentator complained about NFL players peacefully taking a knee to protest police violence and racism in America. The host said that what bothered her about the protests was that they ruined her Sunday afternoon game-time fun. She said something about just wanting to sit around, watch the game, and eat pizza and chips without worrying about politics or thinking about significant social issues. In other words, she didn’t want to be bothered with real life, and especially that part of it with which others have to contend, and not only on the weekends.
Just like my grandmother.
In the wake of the uprising sparked by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, many white conservatives (and some liberals too) have expressed outrage, or at least concern, about the supposedly violent nature of protests around the country. Although the vast majority of demonstrations have been peaceful, and a disproportionate amount of violence is being done by police to those peaceful demonstrators, they claim the movement is too aggressive and angry for their liking.
But however much they insist their only misgivings about the current uprising are rooted in concerns about violence or looting, the simple truth is: this is a lie.
These are the same people who excoriated those NFL players for taking a knee — quietly, peacefully, unobtrusively, and respectfully — or NBA players for wearing shirts in warm-ups before games that read “Black Lives Matter.”
They are the same people who largely ignore police violence, never posting anything on their social media about that, but who jump to condemn the frustration of marginalized peoples that occasionally spills over into property destruction. It isn’t violence they deplore, but merely that which they can pin on persons with whom they don’t, and can’t, identify.
These are the same kinds of people as those who, like my grandmother, looked out at peaceful protests in the 1960s, and saw not something they wanted to join, but something they saw as unnecessary and divisive.
In the main, white America has never supported protests by black people on behalf of their rights or lives, at least not at the time those protests were happening. And it hasn’t mattered how that protest was registered. We cannot point to a single time when most white Americans supported black entreaties for freedom and genuine democracy. Not one. But we can point to considerable evidence of our opposition, in survey after survey and over the course of several years.
So, for instance, in a 1961 Gallup Poll, 60 percent of Americans said they disapproved of the Freedom Riders: civil rights activists who engaged in direct action to desegregate bus lines throughout the South. But notice, that’s an aggregate number, which didn’t break out white attitudes separately from those of blacks. Considering that black support for these actions was high — 92 percent said the movement and Dr. King were moving at the right speed or too slowly — it is fair to assume that white opposition to the Freedom Riders, relative to support, was more like 2:1.
In the same poll, most whites said they opposed sit-ins or any other direct action to end segregation. They claimed, much like my grandmother would have, that such activities did more harm than good. In other words, even when the American South was an apartheid colony, most whites opposed the very people trying to do something about it. And they opposed them despite their commitment to non-violence, despite their erudition, despite the Sunday finery they donned as they went about the work. There were no sagging pants, and no f-bombs anywhere, to say nothing of actual violence — and still, white America shrugged.
In June of 1963, 60 percent of Americans (and probably two-thirds of whites, given high black support for the movement), said civil rights demonstrations were more a hindrance to black advancement than a help. So not only were most whites not “marching with Dr. King” in those days — something many will claim today — but indeed they saw no need for the marching at all. And this, even though in the months leading up to that poll, Police Chief Bull Connor had turned dogs and water cannons on children in Birmingham, in scenes broadcast worldwide. Within three months of this poll, in which whites expressed opposition to peaceful protests, Klansmen bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church there, killing Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair — a crime for which no one would be prosecuted until fourteen years later.
In 1964, although neither the Voting Rights Act or Fair Housing Act had been passed, and despite the persistence of discrimination in both arenas, three out of four Americans (and likely over 80 percent of whites), said blacks should stop protesting for their rights. They did not say that such activists should stop protesting violently; after all, they were doing no such thing. They said, simply, stop complaining.
In 1966, 85 percent of whites told pollsters that civil rights demonstrations had done more harm than good for black people. The majority also said that if they were in the same position as black folks, they would not think it justified to protest or demonstrate for their rights or opportunities — this, coming from the descendants of people who quite notably lost their shit over taxes on tea.
In other words, throughout the long struggle for equal rights and dignity, white Americans have believed blacks should stop complaining, no matter the conditions they faced. It hasn’t mattered how they protested, or how respectable their demeanor. And it isn’t style, attitude or so-called violence that offends so many white folks today.
What offends so many of us is simply this: black people are forcing us to take a long hard look in the national mirror. Our narrative of the nation, and ourselves, is being challenged. And frankly, as has always been the case, we would prefer to go shopping or watch a good football game, without the complication of real life getting in the way.
Ultimately, white America doesn’t want peace. We desire quiet.
But until there is justice, we deserve neither, and will most assuredly be denied both.