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10 Experts on Where the George Floyd Protests Fit Into American History

14 minute read

Not quite two weeks after the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died after a now-former Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck, it’s already clear that what happened to him—and the protests that followed—will be in history books someday. The moment is not only a striking turning point in an ongoing Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality, but also set apart by a global pandemic that is disproportionately affecting African Americans.

But how exactly these events will be framed is still to be determined, by factors such as how long demonstrations continue globally and whether any major legislation is passed as a result. In the meantime, many are looking to history for clues about how to understand the evolving moment.

Comparisons to the 1960s, and that era’s fight for racial equality, have been plentiful—but that period was just one chapter in a civil rights movement that’s almost as old as America is. TIME asked ten experts on the history of race in the United States to weigh in on which moments from the American past can help us understand today.

Simon Balto, author of Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power and Assistant Professor of History at the University of Iowa:

I think people need to understand that the destruction of property as a form of political dissent is a practice older than this country. The Boston Tea Party—that was a group of political dissidents destroying property in political protest. Americans have been destroying property in pursuit of various political goals ever since, sometimes in the airing of legitimate grief and grievances such as violent and racist policing systems, sometimes over more nefarious motives. (White people in Chicago rioted and destroyed Black people’s property practically once a year in the late 1940s and 1950s in order to drive out Black families who wanted to move into white neighborhoods.) So when people say that what’s happening right now is “un-American,” they’re categorically wrong. It’s in the nation’s DNA.

Kellie Carter Jackson, author of Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence and Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College:

There was a group of black—some might say radical—abolitionists who believed that because slavery was started in violence and slavery is sustained by violence, slavery will only be overthrown by violence. So they [use] a direct, aggressive and, in some cases, forceful and violent, protest to accelerate emancipation. I see a lot of parallels in terms of tactics used, how people have used pretty much every tool in front of them—maybe not cell-phone footage, but the press, the pen, their speeches, their rhetoric, their physical bodies. This contributed to the abolition of slavery, and I see those same tactics playing out today in [hopes of] abolishing police brutality, abolishing mass incarceration, abolishing the gross inequities between white communities and black communities.

Duchess Harris, author of Racially Writing the Republic: Racists, Race Rebels, and Transformations of American Identity and Professor of American Studies at Macalester College:

The parallel I make is to Red Summer. You get the Spanish flu in 1918​, then​ in the summer of 1919 you get en masse race rebellions in the ​N​orth​, ​and it’s for several reasons. There is economic competition—black men have fought in World War I and have migrated from the South to the North partly for job opportunities. They’re not allowed to get jobs, even though they fought for their country. Then the Spanish Flu comes about. Then it’s summer. It’s hot. There are black people in cities who have never been there before, and then there’s white resistance. Part of what’s going on now is a pushback to the eight years of Obama in the White House​. ​With the Red Summer, part of the pushback is​,​ “We’re ​​glad these men fought for us …but don’t come back wearing the military uniform and behaving like you’re American like we are​,​ because you aren’t.”

Tyran K. Steward, Assistant Professor of History at Williams College, who is writing a book tentatively entitled The Benching of Willis Ward: The Making of a Black Conservatism in the Jim Crow North:

There is a tendency to focus on the 1960s as a way to contextualize the current unrest sparked by the white supremacist killing of George Floyd. To be frank, it is an intellectually lazy, even charming and romanticist version of the black struggle against extralegal violence and police brutality. It diminishes and sectionalizes that struggle within American popular memory. The reality is that black people have been challenging white supremacist violence for over a century.

Historically, black people have been first the targets of white-supremacist violence—not perpetrators themselves. We can go back to the Atlanta race riots in 1906 or the Springfield race riots in 1908 or Red Summer in 1919 or Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921 or the Ossian Sweet incident in 1925 and in each of those examples and so many others we glimpse how black people have been victims of mass racial violence. And often this violence that is perpetrated against black people has been state-sanctioned. But it is the black response that gets criminalized. Legitimate black outrage and protest are framed as a spontaneous development—the result of some innate, psychological disorder—and [that] becomes a way to portray black people as destructive and violent, thereby justifying the way our communities are then policed and, quite frankly, over-policed.

Greg Carr, Chair of Howard University’s Department of Afro-American Studies and author of You Don‘t Call the Kittens Biscuits: Disciplinary Africana Studies and The Study of Malcolm X:

What we’re seeing is both familiar in American history and unique in American history at the same time. The idea of insurrections, uprisings, expressions of outrage in the wake of injustice is deeply rooted in the American experiment, as is the response of law enforcement in trying to suppress or manage those kinds of strikes against the social order.

May 31-June 1 marks the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, and bringing it to public attention allows people a point of entry to think about the fact that these things are cyclical, part of a larger rhythm of state violence and responses in this country. Black people go West to build that form of self-determination that will allow them to live free. They build up that kind of prosperity in Tulsa, but the response to it is state violence.

Matthew F. Delmont, Professor of History at Dartmouth College and author of the upcoming book Half American: African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad:

In 1943, there were over 240 different race riots or race rebellions across the United States. Those were often sparked by interactions between police and black people, but also the sense that there was a nation on edge; I think that things sparked more quickly during World War II because there was just so much tension. People think back on World War II as a time when the nation was really united, but that was definitely not the case. There was very much heightened racial tension during the war… The World War II protests came right before sociologist Gunnar Myrdal’s book An American Dilemma, where he identified two nations—one black, one white. [After the war was one] of the first times cities took it upon themselves to study race. They often did it in terms of what scholars would call a “hearts and minds” approach. They thought, “If we can just address the prejudice that white people have, that will be the thing that will solve these,” but they didn’t really get at the more systemic issues—the issues of police brutality, unemployment, housing segregation, school segregation.

Both in the 1960s and now, people viewed riots as the wrong way to go about protests and they would criticize the rioters and say, “Why aren’t you behaving in the nonviolent manner of Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks?” You saw that in the 1960s and I see it a lot on Twitter right now. The problem there is that it presents King as the sole emblem of civil rights, whereas there were many different approaches to civil rights and black freedom protests in the ’60s. Even King was vocally outspoken against the problems of police brutality. I think the riots are often seen as the downfall of civil rights movement as opposed to the next chapter in tactics people felt like they had to use.

Ashley Howard, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Iowa, who is writing a book on 1960s urban rebellions in the Midwest:

People used to finger-wag a lot in the 1960s and say, “Why are they burning down their own neighborhoods?” Obviously there’s a fallacy in that because many African Americans didn’t feel they were in control of their neighborhoods, and didn’t own property there, and [shopkeepers] charged inferior rates for inferior goods. What we’re seeing now is people who are violently protesting are going into downtown areas, commercial areas—that’s a change in where property violence is taking place.

With the last salvos of the urban rebellions in the ’60s, that was the end of a liberal détente in the Midwest. People are beginning to think, “We tried to listen to you, we tried to make you happy, we tried to give you what you wanted, you’re still out in the streets, we give up.” Another thing we see in the Midwest is a change in what the black community looks like. We have suburbanization—many white well-to-do people are leaving the central city and black middle-class people are leaving black neighborhoods, which become depressed. We also see them becoming hyper-policed. With the economic downturn in the ’70s and ’80s, that disproportionately affects black communities and destabilizes them even more. What we also see happening within the new millennium is that central cities are the place to be, so we see a lot of money being poured into downtown areas, and black neighborhoods are often adjacent to those downtown areas so we see a lot of gentrification, and these places are policed anew. Anyone who seems to be out of place is then heavily policed.

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Jamila Michener, author of Fragmented Democracy: Medicaid, Federalism and Unequal Politics and Assistant Professor of Government at Cornell University:

There are significant historical parallels between the present moment and prior episodes of unrest, particularly in the 1960s. The most obvious parallel is that rampant police violence against Black people has been a spark for mass protest, both then and now.

There are also important differences between now and previous moments of unrest. The COVID-19 pandemic that is disproportionately and devastatingly ravaging Black communities is clearly a point of contrast. But it is an astonishing contrast insofar as it demonstrates the intensity of the moment: the threat of a lethal virus was not enough to stop the wave of mass protest. This says a lot about the depth of the grievances at stake.

One misconception that persists and that warrants correction is the notion that these protests are irrational and emotional behavior stemming from anger over one incident. There is certainly no shortage of anger over the killing of George Floyd. Overall, however—and history bears this out—mass protests like this reflect organization, mobilization and coordination that is intentional and deeply political. As was the case in the 1960s, the protests unfolding right now are a referendum on the glaring inadequacies of American democracy.

Thomas J. Sugrue, author of Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North and Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History and Director of the Cities Collaborative at New York University:

Maybe the most striking difference between the 1960s and today is that there’s a lot more racial diversity in the crowds in most cities than there was in the ’60s. As a historian of urban uprisings over the last century, that’s something that’s really unusual.

A lot of language we heard in accounts in the 1960s is echoing in the concerns about “outside agitators” coming [to Minneapolis]. There was ton of that discussion in the ’60s, and a lot of it was because local officials and state officials didn’t want to acknowledge there were serious problems in their backyard, and they couldn’t believe that this was happening in their town, so they blamed it on professional agitators, communists or Black Power advocates who supposedly came in and riled up the otherwise peaceful people. That was a common story in the 1960s, believed by a lot of commentators but totally debunked by subsequent scholarship.

In the ’60s and in other moments in American history it took systematic protests and destruction in the street to get public officials to pay attention to the issues that demonstrators were raising. [Public officials] didn’t have incentive to pay attention to it until it began to threaten the status quo. But it can also lead to unintended consequences. On one hand public officials pay more attention. On the other hand it can lead to more punitive public policies. We saw that in the aftermath of the 1960s too, the call for law and order had some really poisonous consequences for cities in the 1970s and 1980s. We can’t predict what the outcome will be, but in the past, major changes usually always come with disruption. That’s a hard reality for a lot of Americans. We want to think that it can just happen tranquilly. At least in the case of race and African Americans, it seldom has.

Philip A. Klinkner, co-author of The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America, and Professor of Government at Hamilton College:

Police have always been in the front lines of policing the racial divide in America. What used to be a private mechanism of policing, mainly the slave owners and then the slave patrols, became public. If you look back at the antebellum South, there were few if any black people in prisons or jails because essentially white masters did all of this. One of the things that happened in the post-Reconstruction South [is that] they had to build up a legal regime to control African Americans.

There’s this idea that these riots inevitably help Trump. Everyone wants to go to 1968: the riots happened, Nixon runs on law and order, he wins, therefore riots are bad for Democrats. Omar Wasow has a new paper out saying if you look at the effect of the riots, it drove down the vote for the Democrats in the areas near where the riots occurred and maybe even enough to have cost Humphrey the election. [But] in 1992, the L.A. riots came about as a result of the Rodney King cops getting off, and the Democrats were able to sort of use this and say that the Reagan and Bush Administrations don’t really get that people are hurting and struggling. Context is everything—it really depends on how skillful politicians are in terms of their ability to control and construct a narrative out of these events.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com