How Today’s Protests Compare to 1968, Explained by a Historian

Historians in the News
tags: racism, Police, urban history, Mass Incarceration

Heather Ann Thompson is a professor of history and Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and a scholar of 1960s and 1970s protest movements, particularly against white supremacy and mass incarceration. Her most recent book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, won the Pulitzer Prize in History.

“Not protesting at all would not keep white racial violence at bay,” Thompson argues. “Protests keep happening precisely because white supremacy is never sufficiently reined in.”

Dylan Matthews

Big dumb question first: How are the protests happening now similar to and different from unrest in the 1960s, like Newark or Detroit in 1967, or the protests after Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in April 1968?

Heather Ann Thompson

There seem to be so many similarities. Because racial injustice just seems to be baked into the DNA of this country, periodically and throughout history there come these moments when people just can’t take it anymore. They feel that the injustice is so particularly glaring or there’s such a compendium of unjust events one right after the other that they explode.

Those kinds of explosions of individual frustration and hurt happen all the time, every day, and then there are moments when something touches a nerve and there’s a collective explosion.

A similar moment was when Emmett Till was lynched and murdered in 1955. Like this moment today, that killing touched a collective nerve. Too many young African American boys and men had been lynched and murdered. We’re in a similar moment; there is an ever-present drumbeat of racial violence.

So, not only is the wanton murder of black men by racist whites similar to what has happened before in history, but is today’s collective uprising. It’s a mix of protest in terms of carrying signs and slogans, but also rage and tears and lashing out. And, like in the 1960s, there has been some looting, because the glaring injustice of racial inequality is time and again accompanied by the injustice of economic inequality. That is why in these moments people also lash out at the rich and property. So in that sense we’ve been here before.

There’s much that’s different too though, and it’s all pretty scary. We have a president who has no regard for the First Amendment, the press, for calming dissent, for doing concrete things that could make this a better situation rather than worse. We don’t know our way forward from this moment. In the past there were at least calmer heads at the top trying to figure out what to do to bring peace. Some people wanted more cops, but others were saying we actually need to make substantive changes and fix what got us into this mess

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