Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” The Civil Rights Movement was the culmination of strategic, thoughtful organizing partnered with groundbreaking legal strategies. Through the course of the Civil Rights Movement, we see activists like Dr. King and Medgar Evers partnered with attorneys like Thurgood Marshall, founder of the Legal Defense Fund and the nation’s first Black Supreme Court Justice, and Constance Baker Motley, former LDF attorney and the first Black woman to become a federal judge, to challenge discrimination.
Young people played a pivotal role in on-the-ground organizing. Gloria Richardson and students in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized sit-ins and peaceful protests all across the South and Northeast to directly challenge Jim Crow laws.
Civil Rights activists known as Freedom Riders organized a targeted campaign to challenge the non-enforcement of the Morgan v. Virginia (1946) and Boynton v. Virginia (1960) rulings that deemed segregation on buses unconstitutional. The multiracial coalition of activists challenged the status-quo by riding interstate buses and dining in mixed racial groups, despite facing violent mobs and threats from police that were often working with KKK members. Freedom Riders were often arrested, but their strategy showed that engaging in non-violent, direct actions challenging segregation in public spaces, and applying pressure to governments had the power to transform the country.
Protest has a deep history in the Black community. From slave rebellions, to the civil rights movement, to the Black Lives Matter protests that dominated the summer of 2020, Black people have used protest to call out discrimination, police brutality, and push this country to address systemic injustices.
Like the Summer of 2020, the “Long, Hot Summer of 1967” was marked by racial violence and civil unrest across the United States. In Newark, New Jersey, and in Detroit, Michigan, racial tensions, police brutality, and institutionalized inequality coalesced to spark a long summer of upheaval and uprisings. In Newark, a Black cab driver was beaten and killed by white police officers after being pulled over for failing to signal. The incident was compounded by the city’s dwindling economy, use of racial profiling, and lack of African American political representation in a majority Black city.
Detroit’s ugly history of housing discrimination and police targeting of Black communities resulted in the bloodiest incident of the “Long, Hot Summer of 1967.” Tensions between police and Black communities hit a fever-pitch after an unlicensed bar, commonly known as a “blind pig,” was raided by police. The result was six days of unrest that eventually led to the passage of fair housing laws and other advances.
Twenty-nine years before we watched horrifying footage of a Minneapolis police officer forcibly kneeling on George Floyd’s neck until he was killed, the world watched the graphic video of Rodney King being beaten by four Los Angeles Police Department officers, who were later tried and acquitted, after he was pulled over on the freeway. Both of these incidents were graphic visualizations of the horrors Black Americans face when interacting with the police. The videos and the protests they sparked held a mirror to the country, revealing the deep-rooted, ugly truths of police violence and systemic racism.
Over the past summer, our timelines and TV screens were flooded with images of the aggressive and violent police response to peaceful protestors. LDF is currently representing protestors in Philadelphia, Louisville, and Graham County, Alamance, North Carolina who were subjected to militaristic police tactics in an attempt to quash dissent. Images of peaceful demonstrators enduring the same police brutality they were protesting underscored the militarization of police forces and the urgent need to transform our public safety system.
After years of sustained activism and advocacy, the protests this summer represented a shift in public opinion and support for Black Lives Matter along with the need to address systemic racism and police violence. Americans carried the energy and urgency of the moment to the ballot box. In cities and states across the country, voters ousted sheriffs with repressive policing practices, elected progressive prosecutors who vowed to combat mass incarceration and systemic racism, and approved ballot measures to divest from policing and establish oversight boards to hold police accountable.
Though some progress has been made, the road towards a more just public safety system and the end of mass incarceration remains long. The urgency and severity of systemic racism in policing requires we meet the moment at full force and continue the fight for racial justice in the criminal legal system.
Civil disobedience has never been reserved solely for civil rights leaders and activists. Athletes have long used their platforms to call out injustice and bring attention to issues impacting their communities. Throughout the 2016 NFL season, Colin Kapernick famously took a knee during the the national anthem to bring attention to systemic racism. But before Kapernick took a knee, athletes were boycotting games and using other forms of protest to speak out and challenge injustice.
In 1961, when Bill Russel and other Black members of the Celtics were denied service at a restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky, the players boycotted the next game and released a groundbreaking statement about discrimination and civil rights. At the time, this was a revolutionary action, as athletes rarely called out discrimination so bluntly. Later, Russell would go on to be an outspoken advocate for integration.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos made history at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City when they raised their fists on the medal podium while the National Anthem played. This was acknowledgment of the Black Power movement and the human rights abuses across the globe, including back home in the U.S. Today, athletes like Colin Kapernick, Lebron James, and other NBA and WNBA players are using their highly-visible status to move people to action.