Protest is dead in America. With it has gone any real hope for social change in our era.
People still march, hold signs, wave flags, and chant slogans. They still gather to complain and make speeches. But modern protesters seem to have forgotten that the real work of the Civil Rights Movement wasn't just sign-waving and lofty aspirations. It was the brutal work of painfully changing public opinion by directly confronting evil with peaceful resistance at great personal risk.
Among countless other protests, beatings endured in broad daylight by the Freedom Riders in 1961 galvanized the nation and forced the Kennedy administration to pay attention to civil rights. Dr. King himself was arrested many times. "Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive," King exhorted his followers in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Deliberate suffering for political ends, no matter how worthy, seems a foreign concept to us. Regardless, it was essential to the success of the Civil Rights movement.
One of Dr. King's greatest insights was that he realized that only radical change, not patient, incremental change, was going to work. No generation wants to be the one to endure a painful shake-up in the status quo, a fact Dr. King and his generation knew too well. "Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue," he said in "Letter From a Birmingham Jail."
When his protests started creating serious tension, white and black conservatives alike balked, imploring him to "wait" and chiding him for wanting social change to happen "too fast." Those reasonable moderates who worried King's radicalism would fracture already brittle race relations in America now look cowardly in the hindsight of the historic changes his movement brought.
Having the luxury of hindsight, we shouldn't judge them too harshly. Dr. King's legacy is a cherished part of our history, but despite the success of his social radicalism, civil disobedience fell largely out of favor as a strategy of social change following King's death in 1968, later used primarily for niche political issues with very limited success.
It doesn't seem we lack big issues to protest. We recently learned our own federal government nearly got away with serious constitutional violations and is poised to drag us into another unpopular war. Congressional approval has remained extraordinarily low for several years. Fourteen percent of Americans are unemployed or underemployed. We are incarcerating more of our population than any other nation, and our police forces are rapidly militarizing, preparing for ever greater assaults on civil liberties. Still, whether out of fear, apathy, or something else, our streets remain largely clear.
Modern protest movements have made vain attempts to fill the shoes of the heroes of the Civil Rights era. Occupy Wall Street bore little resemblance to the well-organized and disciplined protesters of the 1960's. Rather than humbly accept the tear gas and baton strikes of police, occupiers were disrespectful and violent If this unmitigated disaster was our most significant protest movement of the last three or four decades, what does that say about us?
Our standards for heroism may have declined since 1963. The same Nobel Peace Prize that was awarded to Dr. King for the difficult work he accomplished was given to Al Gore for making a documentary and President Obama for making a few conciliatory speeches in the Middle East. While political elites lavish their own with awards, more worthy recipients are largely forgotten. Americans may have grown too cynical to have faith in political leadership of any stripe.
Those of us who grew up after the Civil Rights movement knew Dr. King's face and his famous speech from our earliest days in elementary school. But we have viewed his soaring rhetoric only through grainy, black and white television footage, safely encapsulated in our American historical narrative, a hero of a bygone era. In the end, King was victorious because he recognized the need for radical change and was committed to its realization, despite the enormous difficulties it presented.
Our generation has no Martin Luther King Jr., but his question for the protesters of 1963 defined courage for their generation and reverberates through the decades: "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?"