In Suburbs and Small Towns, Racial Justice Takes Center StageHistorians in the News
tags: urban history, protests, suburban history
While it’s challenging to generalize, given the sheer number of events that have and continue to take place, conversations with eight protest organizers, as well as historians and researchers, suggest some commonalities amid the vibrant, multiracial, and predominantly peaceful demonstrations taking place outside of large cities. They’re often led by first-time organizers in their teens and 20s, often women, who have adapted the traditional models of urban-style political demonstrations to suburban sprawl or rural areas. And they’ve done so at incredible speeds by leveraging social media.
“One of the reasons we’re seeing these protests in suburban and exurban places is because organizers don’t need connections to movements or Black institutions or churches,” says Ashley Howard, a historian and professor at the University of Iowa working on a book about urban rebellions of the ’60s. “They already have networks in place through social media.”
These protests also reflect the demographic shifts and diversification of U.S. suburbs and exurbs in recent decades, a challenge to the stereotype of a monochromatic suburbia. While much has been said about how unexpected it may be for the current wave of protests to have moved beyond urban centers, many organizers and activists say the suburbs — where many residents may not believe there are issues of systemic racism — are exactly where these protests belong.
Despite rainy weather, nearly 100 people turned out for the June 10 #BustUpTheSilence march in De Pere, Wisconsin, a suburb of Green Bay. The group gathered in a local park and marched for about five miles through the town, whose African-American population stands at less than 1%. Organizer Hannah Lundin, 25, organized the event with her husband, Tevin Taylor, who is African American. She’s raising three biracial children, and she felt it was important for her to use her privilege to organize and send a message to the community. “We’re bringing it to the doorsteps of these safe, quiet White neighborhoods,” she says. “We need to keep having these conversations. There are really people in these neighborhoods who don’t get it, and don’t understand. There will be no peace until y’all wake up.”
Protests in small cities and towns aren’t exactly outliers in the larger history of civil rights, says Howard. According to the Kerner Commission Report, a 1968 congressional study of the nationwide rebellions and unrest in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., 23% of uprisings in 1967 took place in communities smaller than 50,000 people. Between 1967 and 1971, those communities made up 28% of all such events. “Any place African Americans have resided faced the same systemic racism,” says Howard.
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