The long history of civil rights protests making white people uncomfortable

Criticisms of NFL protests today sound a lot like criticisms of civil rights protests in the 1960s.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., center, leads a group of civil rights workers and Selma black people in prayer on Feb. 1, 1965; Baltimore Ravens players kneel during the national anthem, Sept. 24, 2017 (AP Photo/BH; AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., center, leads a group of civil rights workers and Selma black people in prayer on Feb. 1, 1965; Baltimore Ravens players kneel during the national anthem, Sept. 24, 2017 (AP Photo/BH; AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

President Trump has launched a three-day campaign against a group of mostly black NFL players who have chosen to kneel during the national anthem before football games to protest racism in America. On Friday, he said players who protest in this way should be fired and, when most NFL owners rallied in support of their players, Trump expressed support for a boycott of the league.

His antics fit a pattern of purposely exploiting racial grievances — a tactic that earned Trump the Republican nomination and, eventually, the presidency.

Enter the “reasonable Republican.” The reasonable Republican does not agree with Trump that the players should be fired. The reasonable Republican even believes these players might even have a point and are well-meaning. The problem, the reasonable Republican says, is that this kind of protest, although peaceful, is counterproductive.

Writing in The Atlantic, David Frum acknowledges that Trump is trying to fight “a cultural war against black athletes.” According to Frum, a Republican who served as a speechwriter for George W. Bush, Trump is struggling politically and has picked this fight as a way of “enflaming conservative cultural grievances” to shore up his support.

Nevertheless, Frum advises NFL players not to participate in the protests because the polling on the issue is “lopsided.” (Frum does not cite any actual polling on the issue.) He argues the act of taking a knee will make “the country’s most famous and most visible African Americans appear en masse to disrespect the anthem and the flag.”

Instead of protesting, Frum oddly suggests NFL players should sign a petition demanding Trump be investigated. (He already is being investigated by Robert Mueller.)

The core of Frum’s argument was echoed by Mary Katherine Ham, a Republican strategist and CNN commentator. Ham, in a series of sarcastic tweets, argues that the NFL protests will do more harm than good by alienating Americans.

Josh Holmes, former Chief of Staff to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, holds roughly the same view.

This idea — that public protests taking a stand against racial injustice are well-intentioned but ultimately counterproductive — is exactly the view most Americans held of the civil rights protests in the 1960s.

Last April, the Washington Post explored America’s “long history of resisting civil rights protesters,” including a great deal of polling about the topic.

A Gallup poll taken in 1964, shortly after the 1963 March on Washington, found that 74 percent of Americans believed that “mass demonstrations by Negroes” would “hurt the Negro’s cause for racial equality.”

Another Gallup poll in October 1964 found that 73 percent of Americans believed that “Negroes should stop their demonstrating now that they have made their point.”

A 1966 Harris poll of whites found that an extraordinary 85 percent believed “demonstrations by Negroes on civil rights” hurt “the advancement of Negro rights.”

Today, numerous reasonable (white) Republicans make a similar argument. The NFL protests are too incendiary and will backfire on the (mostly) black players participating.

Civil rights protesters largely ignored popular sentiment in the 1960s and continued to speak out for their rights. As a result they were able to achieve real progress, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Today, NFL players appear to be taking a similar approach. Despite warnings from Trump and others to end the protests, about 150 players participated in protests during the national anthem on Sunday.