The Complexities of History and Social Unrest

As we watch what is happening across the country, it is important to note that things are complex and much of what is happening may not be what it appears. There was righteous anger over the death of George Floyd (and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, too). Righteous anger for sure, and deeply rooted in historical patterns that have subjected the black community in this country to centuries of inequality.

But there are other things at work as well. Again, history can teach us much.

Social unrest has always been weaponized by others with their own agendas, to not only force the anger in other directions, but to also discredit the core group affected at the center of the unrest.

It happened during the Civil Rights Movement. We want to believe that the Civil Rights Movement was a non-violent movement. The core philosophy of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement was non-violent. No doubt about that. The majority of protests that we read about and highlight in our history classes were non-violent. Amazingly, non-violent, actually. The organizers spent a huge amount of time teaching non-violent tactics to protest participants. And, as we know, these protesters were met with violence from authorities. Bull Conner in Selma, for example, with his firehoses and attack dogs.

Is that to say there wasn’t looting during the Civil Rights Movement? No. There was. Lots of it.

The other night, Trump tweeted, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” He says he didn’t know the origin of that quote, but that quote comes from the era of the Civil Rights Movement. It was uttered by the Miami Chief of Police in 1967 in response to unrest that often occurred in urban areas during the time period, and he used it to highlight the brutal tactics that his department often employed on the black community in Miami.

In Philadelphia, in 1964, riots and looting broke out in response to an incident involving the police and black motorists. For a weekend, sections of Philadelphia went up in flames. And those flames were not fanned by those at the center of the outrage, but by others who wanted to exploit the situation for their own ends. Civil rights leaders, pastors and community organizers went through the streets, urging calm and trying to quell the violence. The violence in Philadelphia was often proliferated by others not associated with the people who lived there. In fact, black leaders in Philadelphia blamed a black nationalist group for helping spread the violence.

Riots ensued in Philadelphia following an incident between police and black motorists, 1964.

What has not been mentioned much in history books are the tactics used by groups like the KKK, the White Citizens Councils, and other organizations all over the country. They sought to discredit the Civil Rights Movement and its leaders. Often they used violence, such as the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church and the assassination attempt on Dr. King at the Gaston Motel in 1963. Although King had left the motel by the time of the bombing, the anger at the attempt poured out into the streets of Birmingham. That was done repeatedly during the Civil Rights Movement: provoke violence to discredit a non-violent movement. Dr. King and other leaders worked tirelessly to not only spread the message of non-violence, but also to calm crowds to avert violent responses to violence. But violence still inevitably happened.

Riots ensured in Birmingham, Alabama, following an attempted assassination on Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Gaston Motel, 1963.

Groups wanting to discredit the Civil Rights Movement also used more subtle, covert methods, as well. Propaganda was used against leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, for example. The FBI had a huge campaign to discredit Martin Luther King, Jr. They actually printed newsletters and surreptitiously spread them among people they viewed as inclined to believe the message that Dr. King was a communist spy. Some of this propaganda was even printed in mainstream newspapers. They also claimed that he sold illegal liquor and was a pimp. Yes, really. The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover was notoriously involved with trying to end Dr. King’s influence. Imagine what he would have done with Facebook had it been around in the 50s and 60s.

This is a page from a newsletter distributed by the FBI to discredit Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.
Accusations of communism were commonly used against Martin Luther King, Jr. And this accusation often made it into mainstream newspapers, such as the Augusta Courrier in 1963. These accusations only increased as King began to increasingly speak out against Vietnam in the Mid-1960s.

Today, with the ubiquitousness of cell phone cameras, we can see a pastiche of past tactics being used today: White people, donned in masks breaking windows and throwing Molotov cocktails. People spay-painting contentious phrases on buildings and being told by others to stop. Fake Facebook groups promoting violence. In one particularly interesting case, protesters in Dallas uncovered a big pile of bricks left at city hall that hadn’t been there before.

This man was recorded breaking windows at an Auto Zone in Minneapolis, May 27, 2020. He was not at the actual protest.

Infiltration and instigation are not new. It has been widely documented and admitted that government groups and police forces used agent provocateurs during the Civil Rights Movement by infiltrating the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the American Indian Movement. They have also done it with the KKK, as well. New York City police went into crowds to stir up violence against the Republican National Convention in 2004 and Denver police did it against the Democratic National Convention in 2008. Let us not forget the Haymarket “Riot” in Chicago in 1886. Anarchist groups, labor groups and suffrage groups were often infiltrated and attempts were made to discredit them from within.

Let us also be reminded that some of the looting is opportunistic and has nothing to do with the anger associated with the death of George Floyd. This is not at all unique. Just as a counterpoint, during the London Blitz, with Nazi bombs decimating the city, some Londoners took to looting stores damaged during the night-time bombing raids. During the Draft Riots in New York City in 1863, similar looting occurred.

From the Arizona Republic, November 4, 1940

Here is the thing so important to understand: when we don’t teach history fully and critically, complete with controversies and chaos, we fail to truly understand the complexity of the history that is unfolding around us.

Educator. Historian. Filmmaker.