When talking about change is not enough
Respecting historical nonviolent protests requires respecting modern ones as well
Sitting in the street, fingers intertwined, four Marquette University students were arrested. They blocked traffic in the middle of 16th Street and Wisconsin Avenue, the chants of their protest soaring above honking horns before Milwaukee Police Department officers zip-tied their wrists.
The demonstrators used their voices and presence instead of their fists. It was a nonviolent protest advocating a clear message: Bring action to the list of nine recommendations presented to the university in fall 2014 by The Ad Hoc Coalition of and for Students of Color.
Months earlier on the same campus, Rep. John Lewis was invited to campus to speak and he issued a clear call to action to the incoming freshman class. “Get in trouble, a good trouble,” he said, advocating that students find ways to raise awareness and oppose injustice.
That message encompassed Lewis’ visit to Marquette University in August 2014 to receive an honorary degree at the invocation of incoming freshmen. The university honored Lewis for a lifelong stand against injustice alongside the major civil rights leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
His words touched on what it means to stand for social justice and work to change the status quo. Lewis marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama and was nearly beaten to death on “Bloody Sunday.”
He organized college students in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and, at age 21, was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. His work was a pivotal part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The methods used by the Marquette student protest mirrored those of Lewis: Civil disobedience in nonviolent protest against a social issue. If King were around today, he would likely carry a banner reading “Black & Brown Lives Matter,” the same message the Marquette students carried.
Modern peaceful protests, such as the one on campus, are an extension of the movement led by King and Lewis. They advocate to change racially oppressive systems. The protests are nonviolent and seek action against inequalities and exclusion based on race. They both fit Lewis’s narrative of getting in a good kind of trouble.
Yet, they are perceived differently.
The 1960s Civil Rights Movement is heralded as progressive and inspiring. Its leaders receive honors and are brought to schools such as Marquette to inspire students. However, when those students implement these lessons, their protests, such as the one on campus, are criticized as acting out.
It is easier to praise the work of historical movements. Heroic resistance to injustice becomes romanticized when it occurred in a different time and a place. The idea of fighting for equality is appealing when its stories fit well in a textbook and does not require personal commitment. The textbook can be closed or the movie can be turned off.
When the movement is happening outside the window, there is no chance for dissonance. Ignoring the social reality takes a more conscious effort when it confronts us on the streets we walk and in the city we call home.
The challenge is to praise the work of both historical and contemporary social justice advocates. Unlike the stories of King or Lewis, it is unclear whether change will prevail from the nonviolent protests occurring today. That cannot be a reason for inaction, though. To support the work of King or Lewis is to support the contemporary movement for racial equality, even if it is uncomfortable. The act of four students blocking traffic got the city’s attention. If we, as a campus, are serious about making racial equality a reality, we will no longer maintain social inequity as our reality.
This can mean joining the city-wide movement through Greater Together or by the Coalition for Justice. It can take the form of writing a letter to a representative in your local school or government. It can be a meaningful conversation. Most importantly, though, it requires your commitment and it requires it now, regardless of whether it is comfortable.