American spotlight: how today’s protests echo historical outrage

In the first of a series of blogs exploring how the past manifests itself in today’s world, BBC World Histories editor Matt Elton gathers the views of historians who have written for us on race relations and civil rights in the US, in light of the Black Lives Matter movement that has gained momentum across the world…

Emmett Till funeral

The issue of race relations in the United States has once again been making headlines around the world, following the death of an African-American man in police custody. George Floyd, 46, died in Minneapolis on 25 May after being pinned to the ground by a white police officer. The incident sparked protest and unrest in cities around the country, and reignited longstanding tensions both about police killings of black Americans and wider racism in the US.

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It’s a complex subject about which feelings, understandably, run extremely high. Here, in the first of an occasional series of blogs exploring how the past manifests itself in 21st-century America, I’ll be looking at the ways in which historians writing for this website have tried to make sense of race relations and civil rights in the US. Although the current riots may, in part, have been fuelled by frustrations caused by the coronavirus pandemic, they’re also evidence that the issue of race remains very close to the surface in the United States.

A great starting point is this in-depth podcast interview with US historian Kevin Gaines, who is the Julian Bond Professor of Civil Rights and Social Justice at the University of Virginia. Part of our new ‘Everything You Wanted to Know About…’ series, it’s an expert run-through of the history of the civil rights movement, racial tensions in America, and the history behind the police violence of recent weeks. Click below to listen.

This is, of course, a subject that has repeatedly intersected with police brutality. There are parallels with the 2014 death of Eric Garner, another African-American man who also repeated the words “I can’t breathe”. But there are older echoes, too, both in the actions of the police and the outrage they provoked. The 1992 LA riots, which remain the worst episode of civil unrest in American history, were sparked after three white police officers filmed beating construction worker Rodney King were acquitted of assault.

In this 2017 piece, Benjamin Houston sensitively explores the events, their repercussions, and what they tell us about the wider US. “It is, in my opinion, especially wrong to relegate King’s legacy to just a story of a corrupt police department, noxious as daily practices in the LAPD were,” Houston writes.

Rodney King survived; many others did not. The murder of teenager Emmett Till in August 1955 highlights not police brutality – he was kidnapped and killed by two men who accused him of whistling at a white woman – but, instead, the longstanding failure of the US legal system to quell endemic violence against its black citizens.

The acquittal of Till’s murderers provoked rallies and protests around the US, and became a pivotal moment in the development of the civil rights movement. Maria Margaronis’s account of its place in American history is thorough, considered, and moving. “Till’s story echoes every time the killing of an African-American person by a white man goes unpunished,” she writes. Till’s murder also features in this brief rundown of the key moments in the campaign for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.

No overview of that period would be complete, of course, without significant mention of two of the most famous people in US history: Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, whose contributions reshaped modern America. John Kirk profiles the activism of both in this feature and you can read more about King’s story here.

If ongoing American racism can’t be solely attributed to particular individuals or groups of people, the next question must be what causes its recurrence. This long, thought-provoking feature by Adam IP Smith suggests we can trace the underlying schisms right back to a foundational moment in US history: the American Civil War. Only by more fully understanding its true nature, he argues, can we make sense of the deep divisions that run throughout the 21st-century United States.

Smith, always fascinating on American history, is in great company in this conversation with fellow historian Sarah Churchwell. The two met to discuss Churchwell’s book Behold, America, which investigates how the ideas of ‘the American Dream’ and ‘America First’ have shaped US history. That might sound conceptual but is anything but, touching on the civil rights movement, white nationalism and the rise of libertarianism. You can also listen to an audio version of the conversation on our podcast here or listen below:

As Churchwell puts it, “Notions of democracy, equality and justice are not ideas we achieve and then put on a shelf to admire. They are part of an ongoing process”. In moments when they feel more distant than ever, they’re a reminder of how making sense of history can help us understand the present.

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Matt Elton is the editor of BBC World Histories Magazine