A theme that has been emerging as I try to understand what is going on in this country right now comes in the form of the title of a song I mentioned last week: “Everything Old Is New Again.” That was my immediate reaction when I saw that Bronco’s player Derek Wolfe had employed the old “love it or leave it” sentiment that was a theme 50 years ago. It has also been on my mind as I watched the PBS documentary series on the Vietnam War and saw so many similarities to what we are witnessing today.
One of the things we’ve been hearing a lot lately is that protesters these days are doing it all wrong and are hurting their cause more than helping it. That is yet another example of how everything old is new again.
In 1961, mobs in Southern cities attacked Freedom Riders, the activists testing the federal ban on bus segregation. Most Americans weren’t on the activists’ side; 61 percent said they disapproved “of what the ‘Freedom Riders’ are doing,” according to a 1961 Gallup Poll.
That same poll found that 57 percent of Americans felt the “Freedom buses,” sit-ins at lunch counters and “other demonstrations” by African Americans would hurt their chances of being integrated in the South. Just 28 percent of Americans said these actions would help…
Even the March on Washington — so revered today — wasn’t welcomed.
Just before the 1963 march, Gallup asked a nationally representative sample of adults how they felt about the coming event.
Less than a quarter of Americans said they held favorable opinions.
One response to all of this might be to get discouraged. I find myself asking the question of whether or not we’ve made any progress at all and if we are simply doomed to keep repeating the mistakes of the past.
But another way of looking at it is that this is what resistance to change looks like. As a former therapist, I am very well aware of how hard change is for most people. Both our country and the globe are faced with the prospect of dealing with massive change and that not only frightens people, but ignites a backlash. That is why I wrote months ago that the results of the last election were not so much about change as they were a resistance to change, fueled by nostalgia voters.
Trump’s campaign—with its sweeping promise to “make American great again”—triumphed by converting self-described “values voters” into what I’ve called “nostalgia voters.” Trump’s promise to restore a mythical past golden age—where factory jobs paid the bills and white Protestant churches were the dominant cultural hubs—powerfully tapped evangelical anxieties about an uncertain future.
When we hear people criticizing the methods of protest, it is often because such actions challenge the status quo and make people uncomfortable. That is a necessary part of the change process that Gregg Popovich talked about last week. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. also addressed it in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”
Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. I just referred to the creation of tension as a part of the work of the nonviolent resister. This may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. So, the purpose of direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.
This country has gone through periods where the kind of tension that is necessary for change rose up and created divisions between those who advocated for change and those who engaged in the backlash of resistance. One of those led to a Civil War, followed by an attempt to change via Reconstruction and a backlash that led to Jim Crow. Another one started with the Civil Rights Movement, which led to others, including the anti-Vietnam War movement.
This is precisely why Rev. William Barber said that the presidency of Barack Obama instigated a Third Reconstruction and Ta-Nehisi Coates compared it to a quote from Reconstruction-era legislator Thomas Miller, who said, “We were eight years in power.” The question before us now is whether or not this country is prepared to change. The same forces that were used to fight against it in the past are once again being deployed. Dealing with that will mean feeling the tension that makes us uncomfortable with the status quo.