When Donald Trump’s press secretary was asked to leave a restaurant because of the president’s policy of breaking up immigrant families, it was seen as a violation of “civility” – treating other citizens with politeness and respect.
But what happens when dedication to “civility” is used as a basis for suppressing protest? Is it necessary to insist on good manners in public and private before responding to demands that an unjust social policy be changed?
When four black students in Greensboro “sat in” at local lunch counters in 1960 to demand equal treatment, that was the position taken by local leaders. In the Greensboro Daily News, a liberal paper in the relatively moderate state of North Carolina, the editors declared that social protest was incompatible with “civility.” “Somewhere,” the paper said, “a Southern community must find a way to deal with civilities as well as civil rights. Such an answer “will not be found while the management is under the gun,” the paper contended; rather, social justice could only happen when “unimpeded by the threat of force.”
Yet the civil rights movement succeeded only because it insisted that racial justice take precedence over “civilities.” Through sit-ins, voting rights marches and mass demonstration, it disrupted the social order. Only then was the government compelled to respond – which it did with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. If “civilities” took priority over movement activism, these events would never have occurred. Justice required breaking with civility.
More relevant – then and now – than the Greensboro paper’s definition of political reality was the injunction of Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave, who said this in 1857:
Those who profess to favor freedom
And yet deprecate agitation
Are men who want crops
Without plowing the ground
They want rain without thunder and lightning
They want the ocean without the awful roar of it waters
Power concedes nothing without a demand
It never did, and it never will
Today, Douglass’s insight is more relevant than ever before. We are now more polarized as a nation than at any time since the Civil War. Yet just as a reliance on “civility” failed completely to address the demands of black Americans for equal rights in 1960, the same insistence on “civility” today – without ever addressing the depth of our racist assumptions about immigrant families and other minorities – is futile.
Direct demonstrations were essential to the gains achieved by the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Activist protest, such as we saw this past weekend, is just as essential today if we are to address the violation of immigrant rights and the break-up of immigrant families.
Yes, we should respect the right of any person to enjoy a meal in a public restaurant. That’s what the civil rights movement was all about.
But no, we should not use the argument of defending “civility” to deflect, denigrate or rule out of order mass protests against an immigration policy that contradicts all the values we celebrate on July 4. The only society that can be truly “civil” is one where everyone enjoys protection under the law, and where the values enunciated in our Declaration of Independence are the basis for our nation’s policies and the rhetoric of our national leaders.
Our nation has been made up of immigrants. My grandfather was the 14th child of a tailor from England. He came to America to seek a new life, and got a job as a night watchman at Harvard. His daughter, my mother, became a secretary at Harvard. I, in turn, became a student at Harvard. Three generations – and a story repeated in other immigrant families tens of thousands of times.
It is ironic that some commentators are using the need to protect “civility” in personal manners as an instrument for opposing protest against government policies. It would be far more relevant to remember Douglass’s words: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has, and it never will.”
William Chafe is the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of History, emeritus, at Duke University. He is the author of 13 books, one of which, “Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom,” won the first Robert F. Kennedy Book Award in 1981.