To the white people waiting for the perfect protest: You’re on the wrong side of history

While teaching my three daughters about the importance of speaking out and taking action for what they believe in, most recently around the white nationalists coming to San Francisco, I’ve had to confront messages they’ve received that there’s no point to protesting. My kids learn the “I have a Dream Speech in school,” but that time had a beloved hero and was a clear case of right and wrong, while the current political situation is less noble, more unclear. I work to counter that narrative, telling them that their own seemingly small actions do have purpose and meaning, but I never made an analogy that the MLK’s time was also imperfect. I didn’t realize the same critiques from white moderates waiting on the sidelines, who agreed with the goal of equality but weren’t willing to do much yet, were just prevalent back then. I’m going to share with my kids this op-ed by clergy from the New York Times: “Waiting for a Perfect Protest? Here are some excerpts:

“Thanks to the sanitized images of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement that dominate our nation’s classrooms and our national discourse, many Americans imagine that protests organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and countless local organizations fighting for justice did not fall victim to violent outbreaks…

The reality — which is underdiscussed but essential to an understanding of our current situation — is that the civil rights work of Dr. King and other leaders was loudly opposed by overt racists and quietly sabotaged by cautious moderates. We believe that current moderates sincerely want to condemn racism and to see an end to its effects. The problem is that this desire is outweighed by the comfort of their current circumstances and a perception of themselves as above some of the messy implications of fighting for liberation. This is nothing new. In fact, Dr. King’s 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail” is as relevant today as it was then. He wrote in part:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action.”…


The civil rights movement was messy, disorderly, confrontational and yes, sometimes violent. Those standing on the sidelines of the current racial-justice movement, waiting for a pristine or flawless exercise of righteous protest, will have a long wait. They, we suspect, will be this generation’s version of the millions who claim that they were one of the thousands who marched with Dr. King. Each of us should realize that what we do now is most likely what we would have done during those celebrated protests 50 years ago. Rather than critique from afar, come out of your homes, follow those who are closest to the pain, and help us to redeem this country, and yourselves, in the process.”

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