For Carson, however, it’s not so much the demonstrations that will determine whether King’s vision will be realized but what comes after. “Of course, there are lessons that we can learn from the past. There always are, but it’s true that the movement in the past didn’t get the job done.” For the rest of this decade to not look like the ’60s, he believes this generation should take some of what worked back then and combine it with their own 21st century skills and experiences to “translate the protest into something enduring.”
A transcript of the conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.
RUAIRI ARRIETA-KENNA: As a scholar and a participant of what you describe as the long struggle for African American freedom, how does what’s going on right now in the United States compare to and build off of the protests of 50 years ago?
CLAYBORNE CARSON: I’m glad you put it in those terms. When people say things like “back in the Civil Rights Movement days,” I kind of cringe at that. It’s a very romanticized notion of the 1960s that treats the first half of the decade as if it were unconnected to the second half. And people tend to view the early ’60s as a “good” civil rights movement that was followed by a distinct era seen very negatively as just riots and Black Power and all that sort of stuff. In reality, I experienced it as one ongoing and connected movement. Martin Luther King Jr. was there for part of the late ’60s, too. The situation at the time of his death was very different from the situation where he was giving the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, but it was the same person. His agenda was much broader by the end of the ’60s. He had been through Chicago, he had been on the Black Power march through Mississippi, and that was when the divisions within the movement became more evident, but it was a division within the movement. Stokely Carmichael came out of the same movement that King came out of. He didn’t come from Mars.
So, I see what’s happening now, to the extent that it’s replicating the ’60s, that we’re probably somewhere around 1963. That might be the best analogy. King described that year as the year of our revolution. There were protests in Chicago and New York and Los Angeles and all these different places. That’s kind of where we are now. There’s a lot of conflict. We’re at an early stage of another era of grassroots activism to achieve political change. And on the whole, I’m happy that we’re having it because I don’t think we’ve answered King’s question in his last book: Where do we go from here? I think we’re seeing an attempt to answer that question.
ARRIETA-KENNA: What’s different this time?
CARSON: One of the things is scale. The notion that everybody was out in the streets in the ’60s—it’s closer to that now than it ever was then. I was at the March on Washington in 1963, and I was so impressed to see 200,000 people. I grew up in a small town in New Mexico, so that was more than I had ever seen in my lifetime, and it seemed rather amazing to me. But when you think about what happened after George Floyd’s murder, probably in that week over a million people mobilized, and since then millions more. The scale is rather astounding, and a lot of it has to do with the technology that’s available now. News can travel more rapidly, and it’s less centralized. To advertise something like the March on Washington, you had to build a network to get the word out because you were not going to get on the evening news. One way of looking at the current moment is that people who are familiar with social media and are able to use the internet effectively can do what it took experienced organizers like A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin months to do, and they were the best at it of their era.
We’re working within a climate in which there is this stimulus for change that is coming from young people, in the same way that young people have always been the most impatient. But again, it’s important to note that a larger proportion of young people are involved in protests and demonstration today than ever in the 1960s. I think the hopeful thing is that unlike the civil rights protests of the early ’60s, some of these protests now are majority white, or at least majority non-Black. I think it indicates changing minds, but I think it more so indicates that even among white Americans, there’s a generational gulf.
If only people over 35 had responded to George Floyd, would we even be having this conversation? I don’t think there would be the same movement. It’s not that older people were not disturbed by it, but our response was more likely to be, ‘Oh, that was terrible, and it’s still happening, but what can be done about it?’ It takes a young person to come along and say, ‘Yeah, it’s terrible and it’s still happening, so I am going to do something about it.’
When we think about the people who started this latest upsurge of Black Lives Matter protests, think about their life cycle. They’ve been through 9/11, the election of the first Black president, the Occupy Movement, the Trayvon Martin shooting and Ferguson and all the incidents since then, the election of Donald Trump. They’ve been through so many politicized events in their short lifetimes. It’s condensed what would have taken decades in my generation—to accumulate that kind of experience and that kind of networking. That’s going to feed into the next 10 years. We’re going to see how well this generation translates their experience and that rage into positive lasting change.
ARRIETA-KENNA: Are there risks to the movement being so large today? It seems like the scale makes it more susceptible to being characterized by opponents as violent or unreasonable, even if specific incidents like the video last week of demonstrators yelling at a diner in D.C., are not representative of the vast majority of protesters out there.
CARSON: The scale now is possible due to decentralized leadership, but with that comes the downside of there not being a core group of people who are responsible. For the March on Washington, there was somebody who took responsibility and said, ‘If this ends up in violence, I’m to blame because I’m the one who’s organizing it, I’m the one who’s providing leadership.’ In this era, no one is really responsible, not only for the actions of the protesters but for the success of the movement. And by success, I mean not just in terms of having a protest but getting a positive result out of the protest.
The March on Washington was intended to get civil rights legislation passed, so that was the goal. It was not simply to bring 200,000 people to Washington and have them go home. The point wasn’t the demonstration. The point was that the demonstration was a means to an end, and you need leadership and structure in order to connect the protest to the end result. When I was 19, I wasn’t involved in the end result. I didn’t help write the Civil Rights Act of 1964. My participation was simply to be there and go home, but that meant that other people had to use my presence as a means of saying this is something that should be done. There has to be that entity or that set of leaders who can translate the protest into something enduring. At the end of the March on Washington, the leaders went to the White House and had a meeting about how to translate that into legislation. At the end of these protests, who sits down and works out the mechanics of police reform and some of the broader issues?
ARRIETA-KENNA: Does the fact that we’re still dealing with so many of the same racial injustices, like police brutality, more than 50 years after Martin Luther King and the March on Washington suggest that the tactics employed then maybe were not so successful in correcting the problems they were addressing? What does that say about the lessons to be learned from the past?
CARSON: Of course, there are lessons that we can learn from the past. There always are, but it’s true that the movement in the past didn’t get the job done. So looking back to then as the model for what will get the job done is maybe too much of that romanticizing of a previous generation.
I disagree with the notion that the movement should take responsibility for things that I would see as the result of bad policing or bad journalism. If you have some people who are peacefully demonstrating and other people who are looting and being destructive, I don’t think they even deserve the same label. What you have are people who are saying, ‘I know that the police are over there confronting peaceful protesters, so they can’t be over here protecting this property, and I’m going to take advantage of that by looting.’ Why call that person a protester? What are they protesting? They’re just using the opportunity of a demonstration in order to do something very selfish.
All it takes to set a fire is one person. All it takes to loot a store is somebody to break the windows. To see how that can be controlled, that’s something that, even during the 1960s in the South, was very difficult to do. How are you going to prevent somebody in Albany, Georgia, from throwing rocks at police? Well, King tried to do that, but only to modest success.