Let’s Get Real: The Civil Rights Movement Was About Police Brutality

Bruce Janu
9 min readJun 9, 2020

As a history teacher, these last couple of weeks have been wrought with a realization that most white people in this country do not know history. Don’t get me wrong. I have always known this. But the responses of late to the mass unrest that has occurred over the murder of George Floyd has made me realize more than ever that history has been weaponized to present a version of America that is more palatable to white people.

It is this graphic, shared all over the internet, that has almost sent me over the edge:

Image shared on social media over the last two weeks as a counter to Black Lives Matter protests.

The implication here is that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a “non-violent protester;” that he was above the fray and that violence was not part of his strategy. The shared image is always used to bolster a negative attitude towards “Black Lives Matter” protesting. Almost universally, that image is shared to convey a message that Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement were non-violent while the Black Lives Matter protesting is the opposite.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Violence was the strategy of the Civil Rights Movement. The whole idea of Martin Luther King’s protests was “civil disobedience” — that is: purposefully break the law to get a violent response. The “non-violence” King talked about and is remembered for was part of a process to draw violent responses from others; most notably, the police. Martin Luther King was all about breaking laws that he thought were unjust to provoke violence from the police so that the movement could claim a moral higher ground. And he knew it would work because police were historically violent to communities of color.

The image presented in that graphic is of the March from Selma to Montgomery, taken on March 25, 1965. The only reason that march was able to proceed at all is that the other attempts to march were disrupted by police brutality. It wasn’t until President Johnson federalized the National Guard to secure the route was the march able to continue. The first time the march was attempted on March 7, Martin Luther King wasn’t there. It was organized by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Now-Congressman John Lewis led the march as a representative of SNCC; Reverend Hosea Williams was walking alongside as a representative from SCLC. As the marchers approached the bridge, they were told by the police that the bridge was closed and to return home. They kept marching and then this happened:

“Bloody Sunday”

The police unleashed fury on the protesters after they told the protesters that their march was “unlawful” and to go back to their homes and churches. That became known as “Bloody Sunday,” and dozens of people were left seriously wounded. One 14-year-old girl required over 30 stitches due to being beat with a baton.

Two days later, Martin Luther King came to Selma and attempted the march again. But in the face of a larger police force and a court injunction, King decided to turn around. Other leaders in the movement called him a coward for doing so, not aware that King had made a secret agreement the night before to obey the court injunction prohibiting the march. In fact, this attempt was known as “Turn Around Tuesday.” That night, however, three white Unitarian ministers who had come to Selma to participate in the march were attacked by white supremacists. Minister James Reeb was killed. At this point, because a white guy had died, President Johnson then federalized the National Guard and made them protect the route so that the march could continue on March 21. The protesters reached Montgomery on March 25.

Here’s the thing: the entire march from Selma to Montgomery was organized as a march against police brutality. On February 18, 1965 Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young black man was followed, beaten and shot by Alabama state police in Selma. The March from Selma to Montgomery was about police brutality and the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson. And “non-violence” was used to draw out the violence of the police for the world to see. That was the point.

Let us not forget that the arrest of Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott and launched the movement. Rosa Parks was one of several people who had volunteered for the NAACP to break the bus segregation laws in order to draw a response from the police so that the issue could be taken to court. That wasn’t the first time she had done that, and she didn’t do it simply because “she was tired,” as it is often said in school to imply something else. But she was tired: tired of police harassment and brutality.

Nearly every march that was made during the Civil Rights Era was designed to provoke the police brutality that had been terrorizing black communities since the end of Reconstruction. But, according to textbooks and the narrative propagated in American classrooms, the Civil Rights Movement was all about segregation. Not even close: protesting segregation was the means to highlight the police brutality that propped up the entire system. It was believed that ending the system of segregation would also weaken the police state that supported it.

Even before Martin Luther King came on the American historical stage, police brutality was at the forefront of black life and resistance. After World War II, the Civil Rights Congress was formed to highlight police brutality and how law enforcement used terror to subjugate the black population in the United States. But, since they were defamed as “communists,” you will rarely find mention of them in history textbooks today. International opera star Paul Robeson was a member of the Civil Rights Congress and he, with others, presented a damning report to the United Nations in 1951 called We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People.

This report condemned police brutality in the United States and likened it to the genocide perpetrated by the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler:

Our evidence concerns the thousands of Negroes who over the years have been beaten to death on chain gangs and in the back rooms of sheriff’s offices, in the cells of county jails, in precinct police stations and on city streets, who have been framed and murdered by sham legal forms and by a legal bureaucracy…. Neither Hitler nor Goebbels wrote obscurantist racial incitements more voluminously or viciously than do their American counterparts, nor did such incitements circulate in Nazi mails any more than they do in the mails of the United States.

The document presented to the United Nations charged that the United States purposefully used its power to limit and destroy black life in America through a perversion of the justice system and police forces:

We shall show that those responsible for this crime are not the humble but the so-called great, not the American people but their misleaders, not the convict but the robed judge, not the criminal but the police, not the spontaneous mob but organized terrorists licensed and approved by the state.

The document further compares the police treatment of black people in America to the practice of lynching that was far-too-common throughout the country:

Once the classic method of lynching was the rope. Now it is the policeman’s bullet. To many an American the police are the government, certainly its most visible representative. We submit that the evidence suggests that the killing of Negroes has become police policy in the United States and that police policy is the most practical expression of government policy.

That was written in 1951. And look at where we are now nearly 70 years later.

Martin Luther King, Jr. himself spoke all the time about police brutality and experienced harassment by police firsthand. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, police harassed boycotters and arrested those who tried to circumvent the bus system by organizing carpools. King himself was arrested for going 5 miles over the speed limit and some 100 other black men and women were similarly arrested for carpooling over a two-day period.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott gave King national exposure. But that sure wasn’t the first time he had run-ins with the police. King, like countless other black men and women, experienced the “driving while black” phenomenon. And that didn’t stop even as he was becoming a national figure. In 1960, he was arrested in Alabama and sentenced to 4 months on a chain gang for driving on a suspended license (that actually wasn’t suspended. But, details).

Most people remember the 1963 March on Washington for King’s idealist vision of America but never really acknowledge the part in the speech where he talked of police brutality: “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality,” he exclaimed while hundreds of people in the crowd held up this sign:

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King talks about the “hate-filled policemen” who “curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters” and chastises people who commend the police for keeping order during protests:

You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.

It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in handling the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather “nonviolently” in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia, but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

Law enforcement throughout the country was used to reinforce racist policies through fear and intimidation. Nearly every incident of unrest in northern cities post-World War II happened as a result of an incident with the police. Malcolm X was speaking about police brutality even before he had become more widely known outside of New York.

“Whenever something happens, 20 police cars swarm on one neighborhood,” he said in a television interview in the early 60s about the situation in Harlem. “This force that is so visible…creates a spirit of resentment in every Negro. They think they are living in a police state and they become hostile toward the policeman. They think that the policeman is there to be against them, rather than to protect them.”

Whenever we talk about the Civil Rights Movement, either in classrooms or in textbooks, it is always about segregation in the South. Always. Our teaching about the Civil Rights Movement usually ends with the passages of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We pat ourselves on the back because that system of de jure segregation was dismantled. The Civil Rights Movement was a success, we tell our children. History is blatantly misused here to ignore one basic fact: at its core, the Civil Rights Movement was about police brutality and police harassment of black people in the United States.

Today, when white people dismiss police brutality as being the result of a “few bad apples” or “rogue cops,” the entirety of the Civil Rights Movement and history itself is being reduced to something that we are more comfortable talking about, because, after all, segregation is no longer legal.

When we do that, we ignore the systemic racism staring us in the face.