In 1964, during what was called Freedom Summer, over 700 mostly white young liberals descended on Mississippi to help register black voters.
The attention that effort generated helped convince the powers in Washington to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In fact, white liberals were involved in many parts of the civil rights movement, in participation, organization and funding.
But the backlash was quick. A New York Times survey conducted just months after the Civil Rights Act was passed found that most white New Yorkers believed that the civil rights movement had gone too far.
Two years later, when Martin Luther King Jr. moved to Chicago to begin the Chicago Campaign to push for fair housing, he was met by vicious, violent protests from white mobs and resistance from many of the same white legislators who had supported the Civil Rights Act.
At one protest King was hit so hard by a rock that it knocked him to the ground. As the Chicago Tribune reported, a riot broke out that day:
“At least 30 people were injured, some by a hail of bricks and bottles accompanied by racial epithets. Some counter demonstrators were clubbed by baton-wielding police officers. More than 40 people were arrested when a crowd of whites blocked adjoining streets and cursed the police, several of whom were hurt.”
King would say after the riot, “I have seen many demonstrations in the South but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today.”
In a 1967 speech at Stanford, King bemoaned:
“I’m convinced that many of the very people who supported us in the struggle in the South are not willing to go all the way now. I came to see this in a very difficult and painful way. In Chicago the last year, where I’ve lived and worked. Some of the people who came quickly to march with us in Selma and Birmingham weren’t active around Chicago. And I came to see that so many people who supported morally and even financially what we were doing in Birmingham and Selma, were really outraged against the extremist behavior of Bull Connor and Jim Clark toward Negroes, rather than believing in genuine equality for Negroes.”
Many of the white liberals who supported the movement had been moved by embarrassment, moved by images of cruelty rather than the idea of genuine, equitable inclusion.
White allies had disappointed, once again.
One of the most hopeful and heartening features of the current protests has been the images of people of all races, in this country and around the world, openly supporting anti-racism, carrying Black Lives Matter posters and using more sophisticated language in discussing the matter of state violence against black people.
The challenge here is to sustain the current sentiment and not let this version of Freedom Summer be yet another moment when allies fail.
This is not the social justice Coachella. This is not systemic racism Woodstock. This has to be a forever commitment, even after protest eventually subsides.
Once again, many white allies, to some degree, have been moved by the embarrassment at intransigence and by the image of public cruelty, in much the same way as it happened in the 1960s.
This feels bigger; it is bigger.
But we must resist efforts to simply pacify and quell, to simply stop the awful images. We must strike at the root: that the entire system operates in a way that is anti-black, that it disadvantages and even punishes blackness, that part of your privilege is built on my oppression.
We will have to come to see and accept that this system of oppression has been actively, energetically designed and deployed over centuries, and it takes centuries of equally active and energetic efforts to dismantle it.
Walter Mondale, who was a young senator from Minnesota in the 1960s, seemed to agree, saying: “A lot of Civil Rights was about making the South behave and taking the teeth from George Wallace.” But, he continued, Fair Housing “came right to the neighborhoods across the country. This was Civil Rights getting personal.”
How will our white allies respond when this summer has passed? How will they respond when civil rights gets personal and it’s about them and not just punishing the white man who pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck? How will they respond when true equality threatens their privilege, when it actually starts to cost them something?