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Similarities And Differences Of George Floyd Protests And The Civil Rights Movement


Protesters pouring into the streets, chants ringing out for racial justice, tear gas flooding city squares - so much of what's happening across the country today looks like what happened more than 50 years ago, when the civil rights movement was in full swing. It got Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR's Code Switch podcast thinking about what these two historic moments have in common and where they differ. She's just published a piece on npr.org and joins us now to tell us more. Hi, Karen.


MCCAMMON: So, Karen, you write that you've seen a lot of your contemporaries comparing this moment we're in now to 1968, in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination and later Robert Kennedy's assassination. You were 16 that year. What do you remember?

BATES: I remember a lot of tension and a lot of chaos - as you noted, that there had been two assassinations almost back to back. People were reeling from that. There was still a lot of tension left over from riots that had happened the year before, 1967, in New Haven, in Newark, in Detroit that were a very big deal. And so a lot of that hadn't been resolved. Student movements were cranking up to say, you know, we're not just these little pieces of dough that sit in seats. We actually have thoughts about how we should learn, and we're going to let you know that. So there was a lot going on. And it felt like we were moving towards something really important, but we were going to have to go through some stuff before we got to the other side of this.

MCCAMMON: And what we're witnessing happening today, does it feel familiar?

BATES: Yeah. It feels like 1968 on steroids, you know, in a lot of ways. The cycle of peace protests and looting and police taking to the street with weapons - that feels very familiar. What's different is the fact that a lot of this can be relayed immediately thanks to technology, to be able to, you know, not be a professional media person and to record something that's happening in real time, push a button and send it on across the country and across the world really changes the power dynamic in a lot of ways.

MCCAMMON: What else is different?

BATES: There's certainly a difference in terms of how we are governed or how we perceive we're being governed. In '68, Lyndon Johnson was the president. He was getting ready to not run because Vietnam had become such an albatross. But he had done a lot of things, taken a lot of chances on social experiments that I think left the nation very divided. You know, people who believed in his vision of a great society, believed in Great Society programs. And people who didn't just thought he was leading us to rack and ruin. But I never heard anybody say, that damn Johnson, he doesn't know what he's doing. They might say he's an evil man, and this is what he's doing. But they did not claim he was incompetent. And I think that's different from this time around. We were not living through the pandemic that we're living through now and this massive unemployment that's an outgrowth of the pandemic. And media was more static.

MCCAMMON: This is happening during a pandemic, and yet people are taking to the streets, turning out in large groups. What do you make of the fact that so many people are willing to take that risk, especially so many black people who are disproportionately dying from the coronavirus?

BATES: Sarah, I've been looking at television and looking at these demonstrations as they go on all across the country. And the real constant in this, when they interview people who are African American, is folks say, you know, I know I'm taking a risk. I'm not stupid. I'm not going out here blithely. But this is so important. The whole issue of police brutality is so important that we're willing to take the risk. We just - we can't stay home anymore. And if we did, what kind of life does that mean we'd have if we didn't reject the way we're being treated now?

MCCAMMON: And, Karen, despite all that's going on, you say that you do see some room for hope. Where is it?

BATES: Well, I think out of the chaos of 1968 came a whole new class of leaders who are the adults now who are, I think, inspiring other people - some of them - to take on leadership roles themselves. So if that happened, then I think it can happen again, and I hope it does.

MCCAMMON: Karen Grigsby Bates is a senior correspondent for NPR's Code Switch podcast. Thanks so much, Karen.

BATES: You're welcome.

MCCAMMON: And you can read her essay at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.