In the Wake of Baltimore, Are Scholars Facing Reality?

Over the years, Francis Fox Piven, one of the more celebrated social movement historians in America, has made a remarkable assertion: Most US social scientists have a severe blind spot to the use of force by social justice movements.  Due to sympathy towards these movements – and an aspiration to the undisputed moral high ground on the movements’ behalf – historians and political scientists systematically underplay (or even underreport) how campaigns employed violence.  Jeanne Theoharis, biographer of Rosa Parks, makes a similar observation about the civil rights movement in particular, noting that its official narrative is now central to “American self-identity.”  Thus the average US scholar is personally invested in the normative view that “This nonviolent revolution showed the resiliency and redemptive power of American democracy: It succeeded in correcting a crucial flaw” without resorting to force, because our liberal capitalist society is inherently open and flexible (One influential scholar of nonviolence, Jonathan Schell, bought into this wholeheartedly).

Of course this wasn’t the case at all, and scholarly consensus has lately come around to acknowledging that armed defense was a crucial part of the “nonviolent” phase of the Black Freedom Movement.  But there’s still a reluctance to talk seriously about the role of rioting.  That may be starting to change.

In the past month Ashley Howard, assistant professor of history at Loyola University, has took part in a small press campaign to promote her findings that Northern Black rebellions in the late 1960s were effective at winning civil rights and anti-poverty reforms.  She emphasized that there was not some stark black-and-white choice between nonviolence and force here, but that the movement – like many movements before and since – exercised a range of options:

Social unrest and peaceful protest are neither discreet nor disconnected, but interrelated tactics on a protest continuum

In a summary of her graduate dissertation, Professor Howard gives one of the best explanations of diversity of tactics to ever emerge from academia:

Outrage and responses to injustice are fluid.  In the on-going discussion of the current turmoil, the efficacy, omnipresence, and symbiosis of violent protest throughout American history has been forgotten… After memorandums, petitions, and marches fail, insurrection becomes a direct line of communication from the downtrodden to the power structure that benefits from ignoring them….

In shifting protest outside of the established spheres of power, non-traditional political actors are placed on parallel footing with the State. The sixties’ revolts brought a swift though short-lived change, affirming to many that only in the fires of rebellion could a new political order be forged.  In response to the revolts, funding flooded Black urban communities bringing job programs, educational opportunities, and recreational facilities with it.  This influx of cash, however, represented a liberal patch to treat the symptoms of racial oppression, not a cure for the disease itself.  Ferguson ignites in the relapse of this illness.

Howard’s theory could go further on historical terms.  Late 1960s rebellions didn’t just take place in the North; they also took place in the South, where the classical civil rights legislation was not consistently enforced until years after its passage.  Timothy Tyson’s remarkable book Blood Done Sign My Name recounts the explosive 1970 campaigns against lynching and Jim Crow in his hometown of Oxford, North Carolina.  Mass desegregation of schools and recreational facilities only took place there after African-Americans launched an anti-lynching campaign which included marches, boycotts, and property destruction—the latter ranging from petty vandalism to large-scale arson.  The point is also demonstrated (if unintentionally) in William H. Chafe’s award-winning study Civilities and Civil Rights which shows that late 60s Black insurrection in Greensboro, North Carolina did as much—if not more—to desegregate city institutions as the celebrated lunch counter sit-ins which had originated there.  And we’ve already discussed here how a wave of rioting paved the way for the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (a fact acknowledged in the classic documentary Eyes on the Prize).

Howard’s other limitation is that she excludes the Vietnam War—particularly the military draft—as a target of the Black protests.  The uprisings reached deadly proportions with Watts in 1965, and historians have often emphasized that this took place just after the peak of legislative activity for civil rights – implying African-Americans were impatient and ungrateful.   It is seldom mentioned that this was also the first year American deaths in Vietnam reached into the thousands, and SNCC, the major grassroots Black organization, adopted its anti-draft position.  In a study for the American Sociological Review, Doug McAdam and Yang Su found that violent protest had a directly positive impact on “pro-peace voting in Congress” during the Vietnam era (the draft began to be phased out by the Nixon administration in 1969). It isn’t clear if McAdam and Su included ghetto uprisings in their data, but either way it’s well-documented that the student leaders of the anti-war movement were heavily influenced by the tactics of the urban rebellions.

Sociologists like Piven and McAdam seem to be far more willing to acknowledge the systematic role of violence than political scientists do (in the 70s, McAdam did a study on the tactics of the civil rights movement with findings similar to Howard).  We suspect this is because sociologists are interested in the overall society, whereas poli-sci is invested in the political system.  The fact that people often need to resort to force to bring positive change, of course, calls the entire political system into question. (Outside America, however, political scientists seem more open about acknowledging this).

A Riot By Any Other Name…

Professor Howard ‘s critique of the term “riots” as applied to these civil conflicts is interesting; the critique has been made in the past, usually by Black radicals, and the issue is complex.  There was a debate about the use of the word at the Civil Rights Movement Veterans of the Bay Area conference several years ago; the prevailing opinion among the group (only half of which was Black, it should be said) was that rebellions are organized and riots are spontaneous, which would mean that some of these uprisings are technically riots and some aren’t.  We suspect that the anti-“riot” point of view is based on the fact that Rioting is officially a crime, and the criminalization of protest is undesirable. 

Professor Howard and one of her interviewers, Jarvis DeBerry, both state outright that they seek to counter stereotypes of African-Americans as uncivilized and irrational.  There is a danger of becoming a victim of one’s own propaganda here, however.  Classifying all uprisings as rebellions – implying that they are wholly rational and organized – marginalizes the real role that spontaneity and emotion play in these events.  Meanwhile, other Black writers have claimed that use of the word “riot” represents a double-standard, and that violent white protests are never called riots—but this is manifestly untrue: the recent Greek uprisings were frequently referred to as riots, just as the predominantly white gay uprisings commemorated every June are commonly known as “the Stonewall riots.”  White riots are going to be a bit privileged just like everything else white people do as long as white supremacy exists.  It isn’t terminology that determines that (Francis Fox Piven, incidentally, was demonized in the right-wing press for her alleged approval of the Greek tactics).  

In 1961, a group of Black nationalists led by Mae Mallory, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln and Leroi Jones marched into the UN General Assembly chanting denunciations of western imperialism in the Congo, particularly the assassination of Patrice Lumumba.  Refusing to be ejected, both men and women fought back against security guards in a knock-down, drag-out battle.  Writing in The New York Times Magazine two weeks later, James Baldwin, a master of the English language, showed no qualms about using the r-word: “The Negroes who rioted in the United Nations are but a very small echo of the black discontent now abroad in the world.”  (Baldwin actually uses the word three times in the course of the essay.)  If one of the movement’s most eloquent spokespeople thought it was appropriate to use the term before a mass audience in “the paper of record,” it probably shouldn’t be off limits.  The threat of chaos in the word backed up a warning to the power structure which he delivered in the same text: “Any effort to keep the Negro in his ‘place’ can have only the most extreme and unlucky repercussions.