How did we end up here?

by Julian Fefer & Carrie Ryter, Editors in Chief
graphic by Emily Zhang

Instinctually, we look to the civil rights movement and 1968 as examples of national-scale protests. That  time period, however, was neither the first, nor only example of racially motivated protests in America. Comprehensively understanding all past waves of protest — 1920s, 1940s, 1950s and 60s and 2010s to name a few — is necessary to understanding the current movement and its implications.


The Great Migration, when millions of black people moved from the South to northern cities in search of factory jobs; the Spanish Flu, a pandemic that wreaked economic and medical chaos — much like what we’re experiencing at the moment — and the post-World War I recession provided a backdrop for one of the most transformative periods in racial history. 

Flashback a few years — the U.S. joined World War I  to defend its political and economic liberties. However, the end of the war and its associated nationalism brought xenophobia and racism and stripped freedoms from minorities, including black people and immigrants.

White nationalists, who were invigorated by U.S. successes during World War I and infuriated by the consequent economic downturn, targeted black people and blamed them for their struggles. The resultant violence peaked during the Red Summer Chicago Race Riots of 1919, 13 days of rioting that left 38 dead, 537 injured and over 1,000 homeless. Two years later, white mobs and complicit police torched “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Okla., killing up to 300 black residents of Tulsa. White perpetrators were not admonished, while black people, who were protecting themselves, were.

The heightened racism coupled with the complicity of the police led to the development of several African American civil rights organizations throughout the 1920s and 30s. Activist groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1909, fought for racial justice through the 1930s. The Great Depression and its associated unemployment concentrated in black communities made efforts at racial justice exponentially more difficult, hindering progress.


Come the 1940s, a second wave of race-based protests arose, fueled by America’s hypocritical foreign policy — though America claimed to be exhorting liberty and freedom, black people in America remained destitute of basic rights. World War II triggered the 1940 protests, much like World War I precipitated the 1920s and 30s’ civil rights action. Black Americans were fighting the Double V Campaign during World War II, combating fascism abroad and racism at home. The Second Great Migration (1940-70), when minorities again emigrated north, this time in response to the increased demand for aircraft factory and shipyard labor, increased racial tensions, resulting in a wave of white protests in opposition to black rights.

In 1943, a white police officer shot Private Robert Bandy, an African American soldier. In response to this murder and the rampant racism exhibited across the country, there were over 240 race riots nationally that year. Police forces overwhelmingly supported white rioters.

1950s and 60s

Contrary to the popular narrative that protests for racial equality began in the U.S. during the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s, by this point, black activists had rallied, protested and been subjected to the wrath of police brutality for decades. The 1960s, however, were characterized by demonstrations on a scale never before imagined.

Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was lynched by two white men in summer of 1955. When his murderers were identified yet acquitted, the public responded — aggressively. The case got intense media attention and motivated members of the black community, including those who would go on to become prominent civil rights leaders, including Rosa Parks, to fight against the oppressive system. Parks’s refusal to give up a bus seat for a white person ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a glaring statement that black people in America would no longer tolerate injustice. 

It would be unconscionable to cover the traditional civil rights movement without addressing one of its — in fact, history’s — most powerful leaders, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King was the brains behind the March on Washington of 1963, the famous “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963 and the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965.

Powerful leadership and centuries of oppression merged to create protests of an unseen proportion. In response to the protests, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Kerner Commission, a commission to examine institutional racism and racial inequality, was created. Though the 1960s protests laid the foundations for systemic change by bringing racial inequality into the public eye and supporting such claims with evidence, these foundations were never built upon — or, rather, were never used to address systemic racism and rebuild the provenly broken system.


In response to the acquittal of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, the Black Lives Matter organization as we know it today was founded, though it has since grown considerably. What started as a grassroots organization, founded by three black, queer women —  Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi — with the goal of centering traditionally marginalized voices, has grown to an international movement with 40+ chapters. The rapid growth was in large part precipitated by the 2014 murder of Michael Brown at the hands of the Ferguson police and the resultant Black Life Matters Ride. 


King is widely regarded as the epitome of a nonviolent protester, a reputation used to rebut current social justice activists’ tactics. It is imperative to acknowledge, however, the role that time passage plays in shaping our perception of the past. While his protests are remembered as nonviolent, King said “a riot is the language of the unheard.” The aforementioned events of the 20th century merely skim the surface of the violence, oppression and silencing that Black Americans experienced; Black Americans have not been heard. Or, rather, they have been ignored. 

The riots and protests of the last weeks, coined the “Fed Up-Rising” and immediately triggered by the violent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of the police, but in response to centuries of oppression, differ from those of the past. Most notably, the movement — ideologically and in the streets — has garnered support from corners of the country, even of the world, that previously ignored or perpetrated the plight of black people. Historically, protests have been full of black faces on one side and white faces on the other. Now, co-conspirators of all races stand side-by-side protesting. Now, protests take place nationwide, rather than concentrated in minority communities. Now, we have the momentum and widespread support to further fuel this movement.

Additional research by Peri Barest