Having begun in August, the continuous protests in Ferguson, Mo., now represent the longest period of active protests in the United States since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks led the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955.
In his recent Politico Magazine piece about “the new civil rights movement,” journalist Gene Demby confirmed what organizers from Missouri have told me: Today’s protests are not disorganized or random.
The protests have nothing to do with the few nights of spontaneous rioting several months ago. Instead, the peaceful protests are organized and led “from below” – by a network of activists including pastors, community organizers and young people who have mastered social media, instead of a few charismatic leaders like King. It also includes more female leaders.
The activists seek policing reform nationwide, plus a second grand jury to review evidence in the Michael Brown case.
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In his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” King focused on moderate, white church leaders who promised support but counseled caution, fretting about the movement’s civil-disobedience tactics. King responded by stressing “the fierce urgency of now.”
He knew that a controversial decision had three targets: supporters, opponents and the undecideds. This last group held the power and got the attention, because only the undecided could break the stalemate.
To whom would King address his letter today?
Today the strategy is to eliminate moderates, not persuade them. True undecideds have dwindled to a minuscule percentage of voters. Party activists, especially on the right, have purged moderate officials via primary elections and partisan appeals, for example in Kansas’ 2012 Republican primaries. Also, membership is aging at King’s original target: mainline churches.
Thus, the new civil rights movement focuses on the inactive and alienated.
Earlier civil rights activists also had their voter-registration drives and rallies; those are needed again. In Ferguson, for example, the elected leadership is almost entirely white, despite a majority African-American population. Dismal voter turnout explains this.
We see this in Kansas, too. Emporia has a large Hispanic population, yet there is no Hispanic representative on the city commission or local school board, due largely to low voter turnout. Things are similar in Liberal, Garden City and elsewhere.
Abysmal voter turnout in minority-heavy north Wichita, east Topeka and Kansas City, Kan., helped torpedo Paul Davis’ chances of becoming governor in a close race. If the new civil rights activists can raise political participation among these populations, they can elect officials who would have to be responsive, or otherwise forfeit their chances of re-election.
Cynical voters may need to see tangible benefits, such as child care support, to be convinced that their votes matter. Low-income voters were blasted for this by Mitt Romney and Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly in 2012, but this is unfair: There are plenty of middle-class and wealthy voters who also expect a financial return on their votes.
King’s legacy will never be forgotten, but tactics must shift with the times. With moderates a dying breed, today’s fierce urgency is mobilizing the inactive.
Michael A. Smith is an associate professor of political science at Emporia State University.