From George Wallace to the Alt-Right: Resisting White Supremacy

The history of the civil rights movement is often used to pressure militants into passive resistance. But how nonviolent was the Black Freedom Movement, particularly when it was winning? Historians now agree that the use of force played a constructive role for many liberation projects of the period, including not just the Black movement, but the queer one as well. The turning point of the era was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed overtly racist, sexist, and otherwise bigoted discrimination in both the public and private sectors. How did this milestone come to pass?

In August 1962, Martin Luther King left a year-long campaign in Albany, Georgia with no tangible civil rights gains achieved.  Dr. King had been thwarted by Albany Chief of Police Laurie Pritchett, who capitalized on King’s nonviolent strategy by avoiding any appearance of brutality and de-escalating conflict between police and protesters. In this way, Pritchett evaded dramatic scenes that could draw national attention. King later acknowledged that Chief Pritchett used “the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral ends of racial injustice.” (Pritchett’s technique is now instituted in police science as the strategy of “negotiated management.” ) [1]

In his follow-up campaign in Birmingham in 1963, King encountered similar problems. Birmingham had suffered awful publicity for abusing Freedom Riders two years previously, so Laurie Pritchett was invited to advise Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor on how to handle protests discreetly.  Despite his known penchant for brutality, Connor largely followed this advice for the first month of the campaign. Consequently, press coverage was minimal and the city’s leaders refused to negotiate with King at all that April. [2]

The Birmingham campaign ultimately benefited from having a both a police force and a protest movement that was less peaceful than in Albany. Consistent media coverage only commenced in May, as protests became a “dual of rocks and fire hoses.” Bull Connor finally used massive force to clear the streets of demonstrators, and many African-Americans struck back; Even Life magazine photographer Charles Moore was accidentally injured by blacks who threw bricks—against King’s wishes—at firemen and police.  This “chaos” forced local business leaders to the table for a desegregation agreement on May 8. The Ku Klux Klan responded by bombing MLK’s headquarters two days later, which led thousands of local blacks to riot on May 11, destroying white businesses and injuring numerous police officers.[3]

According to the most comprehensive study of President Kennedy’s civil rights policies, Nicholas Bryant’s The Bystander, “It was the black-on-white violence of May 11—not [the nonviolence of the previous weeks]—that represented the real watershed in Kennedy’s thinking…Kennedy had grown used to segregationist attacks against civil rights protesters. But he—along with his brother and other administration officials—was far more troubled by black mobs running amok.”  Leading civil rights historian Timothy Tyson corroborates this position, writing that “The violence threatened to mar SCLCs victory but also helped cement White House support for civil rights. It was one of the enduring ironies of the civil rights movement that the threat of violence was so critical to the success of nonviolence.”  [4]

Trump’s White House may be too innately reactionary to be swayed by threat of rioting, but other parts of the establishment are taking notice. The corporate press and neoconservatives have ramped up their opposition to Trump in alignment with the persistent street militancy. And the uprisings against Milo Yianoupolous, Gavin McGuinness, and other Alt-Right recruiters have numerous parallels with the protests against Alabama segregationist George Wallace as he began touring the North in 1964. One historian recounts that debating the racist governor was often counter-productive because “Wallace’s pungent, if glib, replies to questions designed to embarrass him won the crowd over.” At one university campus “500 of the 5000 people in the audience started shouting and pushing one another, some trying to drown him out and others insisting on freedom of speech.” At another college a “near-riotous mob closed in on him…Had the hurriedly summoned local police not restrained the students, Wallace might have been hurt.” [5]

The climax of Wallace’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination came in Cambridge, Maryland where his appearance “ignited a riot in which civil rights activists intent on desegregating the town battled Wallace supporters and then took on state police and National Guardsmen.” In response, Lyndon Johnson “hastily arranged last minute financial aid” to defeat Wallace. Johnson might have been tempted to compromise with the popular racist instead of crushing him, but while “Johnson was concerned about white backlash…he was equally sensitive to criticism from Gloria Richardson, the black civil rights leader in Cambridge,” who was associated with the ultra-militant wing of the movement. Open rebellion slowed George Wallace’s conquest of the mainstream, and it has done the same with the Alt-Right, who are now being denounced by CPAC’s executive director for “disgusting, hateful speech.”

And the Civil Rights Act of 1964? It sailed through congress shortly after the Maryland riot against George Wallace. [6]

This doctrine of “by any means necessary” (as formulated by Gloria Richardson’s comrade Malcolm X) was key to most of the social advances which occurred in America during the 1960s and 70s, and to much social liberation that has been achieved around the world since. As Ta-Nehisi Coates noted in The Atlantic, “The housing bill of 1968—the most proactive civil rights legislation on the books—is a direct response to the riots that swept American cities after King was killed. Violence, lingering on the outside, often backed nonviolence during the civil rights movement.”  The strategy extended into the gay liberation struggle as well; Even beyond the well-known Stonewall riots, threatening confrontation played a persistent role in advancing LGBT rights. The Gay Activist Alliance (GAA) was conceived by Morty Manford and other activists as a reform organization, but its tactics were often far from moderate. In the course of his 1971 campaign to establish a gay student lounge at Columbia University, Manford led scuffles with security guards and a dean. The dean negotiated with Manford because he “feared that campus radicals might suddenly rally to the gay rights cause and storm the building…in spring of 1968, students had held him hostage in that same office.” Columbia’s subsequent recognition of gays marked the first time a major American institution acknowledged that they were a legitimate minority group.[7]

In 1972, GAA raided the Inner Circle theatre festival in order to protest homophobic editorials in The New York Daily News—editors of which helped organized the elite event.  This provoked fistfights with police and firefighters that resulted in the severe beating of Morty Manford. The incident brought major media attention to the issue of homophobia, and prompted Manford’s mother Joanne to found the original chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). According to David Eisenbach, GAA’s reputation for bringing violence and negative publicity to events gave them leverage in negotiating with the Association for the Advancement of Behavioral Therapy, which had previously refused to contemplate the harmful effects of conversion therapy for gays and lesbians, and the American Psychiatric Association (APA), which had classified homosexuality as a pathology until it reversed itself in 1974.[8]

Thus while both conservative and liberal queers have denounced the tactics used against Milo and the Alt-Right, they failed to recognize that these same methods were used to carve out the very freedoms which they now take for granted. As it goes for LGBT, so it goes for social movements generally. Celebrated sociologist Francis Fox Piven acknowledges that:

           …the largely unexamined axiom that movements are non-violent distorts our analysis…From time immemorial the aggregation of people in the crowd or the mob has also implied the threat of violence…The historical meaning of the picket line, of the massing of workers at the entrance of the struck factory or mine, was to physically intimidate any workers or “scabs” who were ready to take the place of the strikers, and thus break the strike. We forget this history because the picket line is now so closely regulated…[9]

And with its close regulation—it’s pacification—has come the near-collapse of the labor movement.

Never forget. Classical civil rights militancy did not consider the “free speech” of fascists, or even the policies of liberal institutions, to be a sacred cow. Indeed, liberal institutions—from the Democratic Party and the Northern colleges that hosted George Wallace, to the homophobic Daily News and APA—were often part of the problem. The defiance of the oppressed against this middle-of-the-road establishment doesn’t represent reaction or irrationality, it shows that the spirit of liberation is alive and well.

  1. “Laurie Pritchett”, The King Encyclopedia, Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute website; William Chafe, Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Struggle for Black Freedom (Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 126
  2. Diane McWhorter, Carry Me Home: Birmingham Alabama and the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Movement (Simon and Shuster, 2001), p. 339-343
  3. Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963 (Simon and Shuster, 1988), p. 778-780
  4. Nicholas A. Bryant, The Bystander: John F. Kennedy And the Struggle for Black Equality (Basic Books, 2006), p.393; Timothy Tyson, “Civil Rights Movement” in The Oxford Companion to African-American Literature, p. 149; Thomas F. Jackson “Jobs and Freedom: The Black Revolt of 1963 and the Contested Meaning of the March on Washington” Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, p.10
  5. Stephan Lesher, George Wallace: American Populist (Da Capo Press, 1994), p.276-292
  6. Nick Kotz, Judgement Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Laws that Changed America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006), p. 143 ; Ryan Lizza, “How Alt-Right Fellow Traveler Milo Yiannopoulos Cracked Up the Right” The New Yorker, February 21, 2017;
  7. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Barack Obama, Ferguson, and the Evidence of Things Unsaid” The Atlantic, November 26, 2014; David Eisenbach, Gay Power: An American Revolution (Da Capo Press, 2007), p. 183-201
  8. Eisenbach, Gay Power, p. 232-236; Joseph J. Kennedy “The Summer of 77: The Last Hurrah of the Gay Activists Alliance” ISBN 1-884544-002.
  9. Francis Fox Piven “Protest Movements and Violence” in Violent Protest, Contentious Politics and the Neoliberal State, Seraphim Seferiades, Ed. (Routledge, 2016)