When people started burning cop cars and destroying property during protests against police brutality, some argued the non-violent protest movement of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. should serve as the model for today's activists.
But violence has long been a part of bringing about racial justice, says Kellie Carter Jackson, professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College and author of "Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence."
While some say violence has no place in the struggle for social change, Jackson calls for more discussions about how violence sparked the civil rights movement. The murders of Emmett Till and four young girls in a church, as well as the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. deserve thorough examination, she says.
“I think that the entire civil rights movement was an organized movement in response to violence, that the entire movement was about violence and how people should respond to it,” she says. “When we talk about the civil rights movement, I think we've been too comfortable about looking back at this past with sort of rose-colored glasses about how people responded to their oppression.”
This violence goes all the way back to the death of Crispus Attucks, a Black man who was the first person killed at the Boston Massacre. Across the nation, Attucks’ death is one of the first things kids learn about the American Revolution.
Attucks is portrayed as a patriot, but Jackson says that’s not the full story. British soldiers shot and killed Attucks and several others in response to Attucks throwing debris.
When the British soldiers went to trial, former-President John Adams defended their actions by saying the soldiers feared for their lives because Attucks was a tall, “terrifying” Black man, she says.
Upon reading the court documents, Jackson realized this method of defense isn’t new.
“This language is so similar to the language that we use today when we talk about cops who were in fear for their lives or why someone may have taken this violent response,” she says. “I realized that what we're looking at is actually not new at all. It's actually quite old.”
Less than a century later, during the Second Great Awakening, early abolitionists espoused the idea of moral suasion, talking slave owners into freeing their slaves by convincing them slavery is wrong. That plan didn’t go well, she says.
“What they didn't realize or maybe what they didn't appreciate was the economic stronghold that the institution of slavery had on this country,” she says, “and that it was going to be nearly impossible to convince anyone to forfeit their economic well-being, let alone their power and political power.”
While most recent protests have been peaceful, there have been violent incidents including rioting and looting. Whether looting is beneficial to the cause of social justice is a complicated question, Jackson says.
The way people perceive looters, overturned cars and destroyed business puts too much attention on the destruction of property — and puts the value of property on par with the lives of Black people, she says.
“With the death of George Floyd, I don't think that's right at all. I don't think you should ever compare people and property,” she says. “That's exactly what happened in slavery.”
But if people don’t listen to the anger protesters are expressing through violence and respond with systemic change, the cycle will continue, she says. Many people have been repeating one MLK quote: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
“I think that if we're not careful in this moment to really listen and to really learn about these grievances and why people are so upset, we will find ourselves here again in another five or 10 years,” she says.
Black history shouldn’t be treated as an elective, but rather a requirement, she says, and people need to unlearn the problematic version of history taught in schools.
Jackson’s 6-year-old son received a storybook about race in school that told the story of a brown girl who was discriminated against based on her race. The moral of the story was the other kids should play with her because her skin color doesn’t matter, but Jackson realized this narrative reinforces the idea of difference to children who aren’t yet aware of “the politics of skin color.”
“The story is here's a Black girl where her skin color is the problem. That's the subconscious message that children will internalize even when you tell them that this is wrong,” she says. “The starting point is people believe this is right.”
For Jackson, this movement feels different because of who is protesting and how they’re doing it. Living in the white, affluent town of Wellesley, Massachusetts, she says she’s seen more Black Lives Matter signs than Black people recently.
The quick response to make reform in some places has been “mind-blowing,” she says, and the real change will manifest in what police departments look like going forward. Whether the four officers in Minneapolis receive convictions matters, and so does the length of their prison sentences if so, she says.
“Being able to create real structural, systemic, lasting, sustaining change is what's going to take this beyond the protest and into a better future if we're willing to do the work,” she says.
This segment aired on June 11, 2020.