It’s Not Okay

When is it okay to protest against social injustice?

It’s not okay for NBA players to kneel during the playing of the national anthem.[1]

It’s not okay for NFL players to kneel, raise a fist, or stay the locker room during the national anthem.[2]

It’s not okay for BLM to use confrontational and divisive tactics while marching.[3]

It wasn’t okay for Filipino and Latino migrant farm workers to strike in protest of poor pay and working conditions.[4]

It wasn’t okay for Tommie Smith and John Carlos to raise a fist during the Olympics.[5]

It wasn’t okay for people to march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights.[6]

It wasn’t okay for people to attempt to integrate the political system of Mississippi.[7]

It wasn’t okay for people to March on Washington for jobs and freedom.[8]

It wasn’t okay for people to attempt to desegregate the most segregated city in the U.S.[9]

It wasn’t okay for people to peacefully ride desegregated buses into the south.[10]

It wasn’t okay for black people to peacefully protest at the counter at Woolworths in Greensboro, NC.[11]

It wasn’t okay for Rosa Parks to sit where she wanted to on the bus.[12]

It wasn’t okay for black and white children to try to attend the same schools together.[13]

It wasn’t okay for black people to move into white neighborhoods.[14]

It wasn’t okay for black and white people to be in contact with each other in public places.[15]

It wasn’t okay for immigrants to “take” the jobs of “real” Americans.[16]

It wasn’t okay for black people to marry white people.[17]

It wasn’t okay for black people to vote, or exercise any of their newly granted rights.[18]

It wasn’t okay to elect a President who believed the institution of slavery should be contained.[19]

It wasn’t okay for white people to help enslaved people break free from their enslavers.[20]

It wasn’t okay for black people to sue in court for injustices committed against them.[21]

It wasn’t okay for indigenous people to stay on their ancestral lands, even when they complied with rules.[22]

It wasn’t okay for enslaved humans to attempt to free themselves from enslavers.[23]


So when is it okay to protest against social injustice?  What are the acceptable ways of protesting?  Who can protest?  After nearly 400 years, why do we still have to protest it at all?[24]

I’ll tell you: Now is always the time.  Here is always the place.  We are always the ones.




[1] NBA Commissioner Adam Silver: Players must stand and “line up in a dignified posture along the sidelines or on the foul line” during the anthem. September 28, 2017
[2] Donald Trump, among a bunch of other things: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” September 29, 2017.  Also, you can use the Internet to find lots of other people who think they can violate the First Amendment rights of other people.
[3] You can find those complaints all over the Internet.  I’ll cite a Washington Post article by Barbara Reynolds, an author and civil rights activist. August 24, 2015
[4] The strike lasted 5 years – from 1965 until 1970 – and was successful.  Cesar Chavez, the leader of the strike, followed the example of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and refused to use violence.  He led marches and fasted for 25 days, having nothing but water.
[5] Smith and Carlos, winners of the gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the men’s 200-meter spring at the 1968 Olympics, attended the medal ceremony “wearing black socks and no shoes to symbolize African-American poverty, a black glove to express African-American strength and unity. (Smith also wore a scarf, and Carlos beads, in memory of lynching victims.) As the national anthem played and an international TV audience watched, each man bowed his head and raised a fist.” (link)   Both men were sent home.
[6] Selma’s Public Safety Director, Wilson Baker, said, “I consider this a march by a silly bunch of idiots. You ought to call your organization the Southern Stupid Leadership Conference!” before arresting 36 whites, mostly ministers, who marched to his house to protest living conditions in districts occupied mostly by black citizens, ahead of the main body of protesters. (link)  On March 7, 1965, after marching only six blocks, about 600 protesters reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge where they were met by state and local lawmen who used clubs and teargas to literally beat them back to Selma.  It took the decision of a Federal Court judge to allow marchers to exercise their First Amendments rights, which over 3,000 of them did On March 21st.  Four days later, when they reached Montgomery, the protesters numbered around 25,000.  Less than five months later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. (link)
[7] Freedom Summer, or the Mississippi Freedom Project, occurred in 1964.  Hundreds of white students were recruited by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) primarily to assist African Americans to register to vote in a state where only about 5% of black eligible voters were registered.  Activists and blacks were beaten; churches, businesses, and homes were bombed or burned; over a thousand people were arrested; and at least 3 people were murdered (on the first day of the project). (link)  The project had mixed results.  The main goal of registering more black voters was unsuccessful.  The media attention that came with the violence against the project partially led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  The failure of the movement also led to Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael urging African-Americans to seize their rights “by any means necessary.”
[8] Rachelle Horowitz, an organizer of the 1963 march, where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, said, “When we first began planning the march, there was a concerted effort by the Kennedy administration to get it called off and to not let it take place.”  Holmes Norton, another organizer, said, there were “nothing but complaints from the Kennedy administration at the time.” (link)
[9] In May 1963, civil rights activists, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., staged a boycott of businesses in Birmingham, AL.  Marches were also made, including a children’s march, of children aged 6 to 18 years.  MLK and the Southern Leadership Conference believed that no one would attempt to be violent with children.  They underestimated Eugene “Bull” Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety for the City, and an avowed segregationist.  In fact, he had sent a warning two years prior to activists saying, “We are not going to stand for this in Birmingham, and if necessary we will fill the jail full and we don’t care whose toes we step on.”  Almost 1,000 children protestors were jailed.  Dogs were released on protestors injuring many.  Fire hoses were turned on protestors.  As the demonstrations continued, local businesses realized the heavy toll the protests and Connor’s response were having on their bottom line and they negotiated a settlement.  “They agreed to desegregate lunch counters and fitting rooms. They agreed to remove “Whites Only” signs from drinking fountains and restrooms. They agreed to hire more African-Americans.” Birmingham’s mayor called the business owners “gutless traitors.”  Connor said, “I would have beaten King if those damn merchants… hadn’t given in.”  The following month, partially due to the events in Birmingham, President Kennedy delivered his “Report to the American People on Civil Rights” speech, in which he proposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
[10] The Freedom Rides of 1961 saw civil rights activists ride interstate buses into the segregated south in order to compel the U.S. government to enforce the law.  From May until November, hundreds of men and women risked their safety and their lives while taking at least 60 separate rides.  On May 15th, as reported by the New York Times, “the integrated group” of activists “took a brief but bloody beating, and fled.” Later, near the town of Anniston, AL, a fire bomb was thrown through the bus window.  Upon arriving in Birmingham, passengers on another bus who attempted to wait in the “wrong” waiting room were beaten.  Photographers attempting to report the incidents had their cameras stolen or smashed.  Police, who were stationed nearby, took ten minutes to arrive.  U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy had requested the Alabama Governor John Patterson provide safe passage for this group of activists.  He was refused; Patterson stated “the citizens of the state are so enraged I cannot guarantee protection for this bunch of rabble-rousers.”  Some drivers refused to drive buses when Freedom Riders were on board.  There were similar events during the entirety of the Freedom Rides. PBS has a film about the Freedom Riders. You can watch it on YouTube.
[11] In February 1960, four black students from North Carolina A&T sat down at the “whites only” lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, NC.  Waitresses refused to acknowledge them. Within four days, the protest spread to another nearby location.  Within a week and a half, protests had spread to six cities.  Over the next six months, every day, black students sat at that counter (and others), the number of protestors rising each day. This protest led to other nonviolent acts against racial injustice across the southern U.S.  In an article published on February 10, 1960 in the New York Times, the mayor of Raleigh, NC was quoted as saying, “It is regrettable that some of our young Negro students would risk endangering Raleigh’s friendly and cooperative race relations by seeking to change a long-standing custom in a manner that is all but destined to fail.”  The state’s Attorney General said that the students’ actions “pose a serious threat to the peace and good order in the communities in which they occur.”
[12] The arrest of Rosa Parks in December 1955 led to the Montgomery (Alabama) bus boycotts.  Black citizens refused to use the city’s buses unless they were desegregated, boycotting them for over a year.  The police commissioner of Montgomery, AL, Clyde Sellers, said in a February speech, “If any Negro wants desegregation, let him go where there is desegregation.”  He followed that up with “Let our battle cry be states’ rights and white supremacy.”  Sam Englehardt, a State Senator from Macon County, AL, opened a rally with “segregation is an institution of the South we don’t intend to see scrapped.  The mayor of Montgomery, W.A. Gayle, spoke also, saying, “We want all races to share and share abundantly in the good things of life.  But we also want segregation.”  The quotes were published in the February 11, 1956 issue of the New York Times.
[13] Even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that state-sanctioned segregation of public schools was a violation of the 14th amendment and therefore unconstitutional.  The ruling did little, as enforcement was lacking.  Where forced integration was attempted, many whites simply fled. In 1956 the University of Alabama suspended Autherine Lucy, who was accepted as the first black student by order of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1955, after white students rioted.  She was then expelled after her lawyers accused the university of a conspiracy against her.  The University of Georgia saw a similar incident in 1961, but Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes were readmitted and became the first African American undergraduate students at the University.  In 1956, rioters in Mansfield, Texas threatened to use weapons on anyone who attempted to integrate the school.  (The public schools there were not integrated until 1965.)  The schools in Little Rock, Arkansas closed for the 1958-59 school year rather than integrate. (They were integrated the following year, by the Little Rock Nine.)  From 1959-1964 the Prince Edward County, Virginia, public schools chose to close as well.  Again, there are countless incidents of violence and noncompliance throughout the 1950s and 60s in regards to integrated education.
[14] After thousands of African Americans began moving to East St. Louis, Illinois in the mid-1910s in search of industrial work, white residents attempted to discourage them from living in the town.  From July 2-5, 1917, white mobs attacked black citizens of the town.  The East St. Louis massacre saw dozens of African Americans murdered, and the destruction of their community. Race riots occurred countless times and for various reasons throughout the 1900s, many times beginning when an African American was accused of raping a white woman, or breaking a law which harmed a white person and escalating when whites took matters into their own hands brutally beating, torturing and/or murdering the accused.  The 1906 Atlanta race riots and the 1919 Chicago race riots combined both matters; so did the 1921 Tulsa race riots, which may be the most deadly riots in U.S. history. Of course there are many, many more of these (like Detroit, 1942) that you can find with a quick search on the Internet.  Later, the federally-backed policy of redlining – not allowing black people to move into certain neighborhoods by denying them loans or mortgages, or even refusing to show them homes in that area – kept neighborhoods segregated.  This discriminatory and racist policy, which was in effect from 1934 until 1968, still affects us today.  See also sundown towns.
[15] See the U.S. Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) which upheld state racial segregation laws under the doctrine of “separate but equal.”
[16] There’s not enough space here, as this thought continues to this day.  I’ll cite something from the 19th century here – riots against Chinese workers in the west were frequent in the late 1800s, mostly due to the large number of Chinese immigrants who worked in the construction of the railroads or as miners.  White workers, angry that the Chinese workers were taking “their” jobs, beat and murdered many Chinese workers.  Discriminatory laws were also passed against them in the west.  The Immigration Act of 1917 brought the discrimination to the federal level with more discriminatory laws against Asians following in the 1920s and 1930s.  While we’re on discrimination of Asians, the federal government, under the direction of President Franklin Roosevelt (Executive Order 9066), interred all Japanese, including American citizens, on February 19, 1942.
[17] Even though white enslavers had been raping those they enslaved for centuries, on January 29, 1883, the United States Supreme Court unanimously agreed that anti-miscegenation statutes did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because “the punishment of each offending person, whether white or black, is the same.”  It wasn’t until 1967 that the USSC overturned the previous ruling, in the case of Loving v. Virginia.
[18] The Fifteenth Amendment was ratified in 1870, granting the right to vote to all men.  However, calls for voting rights began soon after the war ended.  So did the attacks on those gathering or demonstrating to be allowed those rights.  The violent acts are too numerous to even mention here.  Besides beatings, murders, and kidnappings, “Black codes” – laws created following the rebellion which restricted the freedom of African Americans – were passed, and people who attempted to exercise their rights, or help others in exercising their rights, were attacked.  Former rebels established the Ku Klux Klan in December 1865 in order to terrorize African Americans who stepped out of line, as well as to threaten the white people who attempted to help.  These terrorist acts continued throughout the 1800s and into the 1900s, despite (or because of) gains made by blacks in the U.S.  In 1871 the violence was so intense in South Carolina that President Grant declared martial law in the state after signing the Ku Klux Klan Act, which made it a federal crime to deprive American citizens their civil rights through racial terrorism.  Voting rights activists were murdered again throughout the 1950s.  The Equal Justice Initiative created a website called Lynching in America.  The site contains stories, videos, maps, and research about the 4,000+ lynchings of blacks in the U.S. between the Civil War and World War II, many done as on the spot justice by whites who didn’t need a trial to know a black person was guilty.
[19] Southern states rebelled against the election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860, beginning a violent rebellion which lasted for five years and killed over 600,000 Americans.  Lincoln’s beliefs about slavery evolved over time, and by his election, it was believed by many Americans that he would work to limit the expansion of slavery, at the very least.  But even during the early years of the rebellion, Lincoln, like his predecessors, cared more about keeping the individual states together than he did about freeing humans from forced bondage. In a reply to Horace Greeley, an editor and journalist, Lincoln wrote in August 1862, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union.”
[20] The most prominent of these was John Brown.  Brown was a radical abolitionist who raided towns in Kansas and Missouri in the 1850s, freeing enslaved people and murdering enslavers.  In 1859 Brown planned to arm enslaved people of the rise and train them to rise up and fight against enslavers to free more people as they moved south.  His plan came to a disastrous end at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) in an armory now known as John Brown’s fort.  The Underground Railroad is another well-known example.  Although what we call the Underground Railroad had its origins in the late 1700s, the network did most of its work between 1810 and the 1860s.  It gained its name in 1831.
[21] Dred Scott v. Sandford, a U.S. Supreme Court case decided in 1857, found that slaves were not citizens of the U.S. and therefore could not sue in federal courts.  Chief Justice Roger Taney overstepped the boundaries of the case and also wrote in his decision that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional.  Because of that, Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in any of the U.S. territories.
[22] Indigenous Peoples were removed from their lands from nearly the beginning of European arrival to the American continents.  The 1830 Indian Removal Act, signed by President Andrew Jackson, allowed him to forcibly remove Indigenous nations from their lands to lands in the west.  This was done despite U.S. Supreme Court rulings in 1823 and 1831. The most infamous of these was the removal of the Cherokee.  The Cherokee practiced nonviolence, and used the court system in their fight.  It was no matter.  Jackson sent 7,000 soldiers to Cherokee lands, rounded them up at gunpoint and with bayonets, and forced them, without their belongings, to move westward.  Around 4,000 Cherokee died on the forced march. This is to mention nothing of later removals and massacres, or the treatment of indigenous people on reservations by the federal government today.
[23] Different laws existed around the colonies (and then states after independence).  In 1669, the Virginia Assembly enacted a law that allowed enslavers to kill enslaved people who resisted authority.  According to the law, killing an enslaved person could not constitute murder because “the premeditated malice element of murder could not be formed against one’s own property.”  The laws became even looser in the early 1700s, across the country. In 1739, in South Carolina, a small group of enslaved men and women began decided to head towards the Spanish-held territory of Florida, hoping to be free of their enslavers upon crossing the border.  Near the Stono River, close to Charleston, in a group nearly 100 strong, they killed the two shopkeepers of a weapons shop and armed themselves.  As they marched, the group burned homes and murdered enslavers.  After marching nearly ten miles and killed 20-25 people, the alarm was sounded and a group of armed whites approached the rebellious group.  By nightfall at least 30 of the enslaved were dead.  Over the next six months, most were captured and executed. (link)  Over the next hundred years, several more uprisings of enslaved people occurred, including Gabriel’s Rebellion (1800), Deslondes Uprising (1811), Denmark Vesey’s Plot (1822), and Nat Turner’s Rebellion (1831).  Ironically, or hypocritically, the Richmond Enquirer said this of Turner’s Rebellion: “What strikes us as the most remarkable thing in this matter is the horrible ferocity of these monsters. They remind one of a parcel of blood-thirsty wolves rushing down from the Alps; or rather like a former incursion of the Indians upon the white settlements’ Nothings is spared; neither age nor sex is respected-the helplessness of women and children pleads in vain for mercy.”  There was also a mutiny on the Amistad, a ship which carried kidnapped Africans to (illegally) sell in the Americas.
[24] There is so much that I’ve left out of this writing.  It is utterly sad and painful to see the unending amount of injustice heaped upon non-white peoples in the United States.  I hope this writing makes you want to read deeper and do more to make the changes necessary to live as intended – as equals.


Image credit.

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