‘The whole world is watching’

Civil rights protests of the 1960s juxtaposed with current events. Photos: Associated Press
By Robert C. Jones Jr.

Civil rights protests of the 1960s juxtaposed with current events. Photos: Associated Press

‘The whole world is watching’

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death, parallels between the late 1960s and today are being explored, and a national debate on racial injustice has been ignited. But will it last?

There are moments when Donald Spivey is tempted to ponder which period is worse in the context of urban upheaval—the 1960s or what is happening now in cities across the nation in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. 

But such a comparison, the University of Miami professor of history asserted, “would be a waste of time since we are really talking about the same struggle, the same problem, the same sickness, the same disease: the systemic racism imbedded in the United States of America.”

In the wake of the 46-year-old Floyd’s horrific killing, a national conversation around racial injustice has ensued, igniting recollections of the tumultuous 1960s, a decade marked by the civil rights movement, anti-war protests, and political assassinations.

The parallels between the two periods are uncanny: police in riot gear, a historic space launch (the Apollo moon missions of the late ’60s and the historic SpaceX launch last month), a global pandemic (the H3N2 virus versus COVID-19), and a law-and-order president. It sounds like 1968 all over again.

“Unfortunately, what’s new is old,” said Spivey. “There is absolutely nothing new about an unarmed black person being killed by a white police officer or a white civilian.” One need only examine “The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief from a Crime of the United States Government Against the Negro People,” he pointed out. Delivered to the United Nations in Paris in December 1951, it accuses the United States of genocide against African Americans and is listed in “We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People” by William L. Patterson (1951). 

The marches, raised fists, signs, and speeches that have been indicative of demonstrations across the country have also sparked debate about the power of protests and why groups of people are moved to take to the streets. 

“When you have atrocities like the murder of George Floyd coming on the heels of so many other incidents throughout the country and then a long history of police brutality and harassment against African-Americans, it all creates pent-up frustration,” said Robin Bachin, the Charlton W. Tebeau Associate Professor of History and assistant provost for civic and community engagement at the University of Miami.

“People have been part of focus groups and task forces and conversations and dialogues, and then they see the same conditions perpetuated,” she said. “Uprisings like what we’re seeing today are a result of that pent-up frustration that their voices aren’t being heard by any other means.”

Racism, police brutality, and inequality issues are being added to legislative agendas. “And I don’t know if that would have happened if people didn’t take to the streets with signs and chants and a show of solidarity,” Bachin said.

She acknowledged parallels to the late 1960s but also said there are some important differences. “While certainly there were some people from all walks of life who were fighting for civil rights in the 1960s, today we are seeing people from many different backgrounds joining together and feeling like it is a movement about the future of America and the meaning of freedom and democracy,” she explained. “In addition to the people who are on the ground, corporate entities are coming out and taking a stand. You didn’t see that so much in the ’60s, and I think that’s a change for good.”

From Boise to Berlin, Chicago to Christchurch, Los Angeles to London, Manhattan to Montreal, and Pittsburgh to Paris, protests over Floyd’s death have transcended borders, spreading to the far-flung corners of the world.

“I think that the world is reacting the way it is because the act was such a vicious and egregious violation of human rights and civility and a glaring exposure of American hypocrisy—caught on camera,” Spivey said.

“As was often said in the ’60s, the whole world is watching,” he added, borrowing a phrase chanted by Vietnam war protesters who clashed with police at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

The activism ignited by Floyd’s death is cutting across gender lines, across race and ideology, with conservatives in some circles joining the chorus of anger and expressing outrage over what happened in Minneapolis, said Marvin Dawkins, professor of sociology in the University’s College of Arts and Sciences. Even residents in small, predominantly white cities like Waukesha, Wisconsin, where Dawkins once lived and worked as a college professor, have taken to the streets in protest.

“We’re seeing an awakening,” he said. “Young and old activists from all sectors of our society. And, they are responding not only to the Floyd incident but also to the massive unemployment, the more than 100,000 people who have died of COVID-19, and the disproportionate numbers of blacks and other minorities who have died from the virus.”

The nationwide reaction to Floyd’s death has reminded Dawkins of the country’s response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, just after 6 p.m.

“Like now, there were nights of unrest, people expressing rage,” Dawkins recalled. “But you have to remember it was an activist decade. There were militant activists, people who adhered to King’s model of nonviolent demonstration, people who had simply suffered so much from the oppressive socioeconomic conditions of the time that all they wanted to do without any kind of ideological underpinnings was lash out.”

On that tragic afternoon 52 years ago when King was killed, Dawkins was just a 20-year-old college student, leaning on the hood of his brother’s 1967 Dodge Charger while shooting the breeze with friends outside his Jacksonville, Florida, home. They learned of King’s death via the airwaves of a Nashville radio station Dawkins had picked up on his portable transistor radio.

“We were stunned,” he remarked. “Then we started hearing the news reports of riots erupting everywhere, of burning everywhere, of people marching. And at the same time, we were experiencing the emotions of what was happening in our own neighborhood—residents wanting to go downtown to demonstrate, to burn. Everyone was angry, and the immediate response that shook the nation also shook me, not to loot but to express rage.”

The events of the past two weeks have stirred the collective memory of millions of more people who experienced the counterculture and civil rights movement of the ’60s.

“I came of age during that tumultuous period,” said Spivey, who was born and raised in Chicago and attended the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign as an undergraduate in the 1960s. “The many, many fights; protests; demonstrations; and social and political skirmishes of the era are very much a part of who I am today, thank goodness,” he said. I say, ‘thank goodness’ because I am grateful for having come of age during that spirited era of consciousness-raising and having heard, in person, Malcolm X; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Stokely Carmichael; Angela Davis; and Huey P. Newton, to name a few.” 

For David Abraham, professor of law emeritus at the School of Law, “there was perhaps nothing more formative in my own consciousness than the sight of state violence in Chicago where I was a student. The FBI’s murder of Black Panthers like Fred Hampton, the presence of national guardsmen on the roof of my apartment building after the assassination of MLK, the violent sweeps of the protesters at the Democratic National Convention and more. Of course, I went on to become an academic, but my concern remains to understand the social and economic bases and dynamics of the power relations we live under and to change them.”

Abraham addressed some of the parallels between what’s happening now and what transpired back in the 1960s and noted key differences between the two time periods.

“The idea that these protests and uprisings are simply about police abuse is naïve,” he explained. “On the one hand, there is less overt racism now than back then, even among the police. But the economic and social disparities in the country are much worse now, despite the emergence of a black middle class.”

The rich have gotten much richer and the poor, poorer, Abraham said. “During this COVID-19 crisis, working class people, in many places racial and ethnic minorities, face the choice between maximum disease exposure and hunger,” he said. “Why would a normal person like Mr. Floyd find it necessary to use counterfeit money, if he did? That is different. There were ongoing protest movements and organization then; today we see flare-ups that have no organization and no real agenda. With the exception of the Sanders campaign and some young congresswomen like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, I cannot think of organizations and leaders at this moment that are prepared to take on the real issues.”

Dawkins believes the global response to what took place in Minneapolis on Memorial Day has the potential to usher in meaningful change in much the same way that the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 galvanized the civil rights movement. 

“But,” he said, “only time will tell.”