Civil Rights

A legacy of protest: From MLK to the Women’s March

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America has a long legacy of protest against injustice. When done effectively, protest serves as a catalyst for political as well as social change.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched against specific injustices, many times triggered by an incident. Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus, became the galvanizing figure in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Dr. King was central to the boycott’s effectiveness, which resulted in the Supreme Court finding segregation on public buses unconstitutional in 1956. He, in partnership with other nonviolent organizations, organized sit-ins, boycotts and marches to shed light on the injustices African-Americans were enduring at the time, including unfair hiring practices, segregation and police brutality.

{mosads}Although history judges him as a hero, it was not so at the time.


In spite of being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, his methods were highly criticized. Some thought he was too radical — “If he would just be patient things will change.” Others thought he was too passive, advocating for a more violent solution. A segment of the population felt, “Is this even a problem? What’s wrong with the way things are?”

Regardless of the naysayers, Dr. King, now Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) and others marched to raise awareness with aim of forcing change. They were successful in attaining the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But it came at a cost — although unarmed, they were attacked and beaten by police and racists along the protest routes. Dr. King eventually sacrificed his life.

On opening weekend, I saw the movie “Hidden Figures.” In a very pointed exchange, the white supervisor told one of the African-American scientists, “I have nothing against ya’ll,” referring to the fact that in stunting the progress of the African-American female scientists, she was just doing her job. The scientist responded, “I’m sure you truly believe that.” The “I’m not racist, it’s just the way things are” narrative is one that has been repeated through the decades. Shaking up “the way things are” is a constant goal of protest.

Protest by nature is uncomfortable. It is meant to draw attention to an issue, and force dialogue, which ideally would lead to change. Yes, it is annoying that protesters may block a street, or offend one’s sensibilities; but if they did not believe strongly in whatever the cause, they would be home in their beds, or somewhere far more comfortable.

In 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick came under fire for not being “patriotic” by taking a knee during the singing of the national anthem before games. Kaepernick used his platform to encourage discussion about a tough topic: policing in communities of color. He faced a racist backlash, as well as fans attacking his patriotism. He, like others before, at present and after him, seeks equality for all. Disagree with the method if you wish; but the underlying issue is representative of how many people feel, and ignoring it will not make it go away.

This coming weekend, women will march on Washington, D.C. They have a multipoint list of concerns they want to see addressed with new administration. Some feel this was not a legitimate election. At the end of the day, the hack by Russia may have influenced minds at the ballot box — but it is not something that can be quantified. The results of the election cannot be changed.

In my view, the best form of protest can be to attack behaviors that can be changed: those of local politicians, and one’s member of the House or Senate. Republican Congressman Mike Coffman of Colorado learned this firsthand when constituents showed up en masse to discuss his support of repealing the Affordable Care Act. He left well in advance of the designated end time of his “meet and greet” event. This is the type of targeted, effective protest that provokes change. Rep. Coffman has been put on notice how his constituents feel about an issue; he also knows his reelection may rise or fall based on his actions going forward.

In looking at the Women’s March, I support participants’ First Amendment right to do so, but I caution that all that may result is a 140 character response on Twitter. Hopefully the energy and alliances built will result in further acts to put pressure locally, rather than just a feel-good session that ends on Sunday. It is great to see the legacy of protest still lives on in a new generation. However, this legacy must be coupled with targeted action to see the positive outcomes desired.


Melba Pearson is an attorney, writer, speaker, wife and expert on criminal justice issues. Follow her on Twitter @ResLegalDiva.

The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Activism Black Lives Matter civil rights Colin Kaepernick John Lewis Martin Luther King Jr. Protest Rosa Parks Women's rights
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