Throughout the past several weeks, as protests over the killing of George Floyd rippled through America’s cities, a 79-year-old retired schoolteacher has spent her days watching the news in her home in Albany, Ga., sometimes with tears running down her face.
For Rutha Mae Harris, who once marched and was jailed with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it is like revisiting her past.
There have been times when she wondered what her generation had achieved. But the past weeks — particularly the sight of kneeling police officers and throngs of white faces — have offered some redemption.
“I love it, I love it, I love it,” she said. “It has surprised me, and it gives me hope. I thought what I had done was in vain.”
For the dwindling cadre of civil rights activists like Ms. Harris who took to the streets 60 years ago, this is a moment of trepidation and wonder.
Their activism gave the world images — the snarling police dogs of Birmingham, Ala., the beatings of Selma, Ala. — that changed the trajectory of race in America. Now they are watching another movement unfold, familiar but utterly changed.
Dr. King surrounded himself with a variety of thinkers, and in recent weeks, his allies took different views of the Floyd protests.
But they all marveled at their quicksilver spread. In their time, major actions were the result of months of planning, punctuated by all-night arguments over strategy and phone-tree lobbying to get reporters to show up. Five years passed between Emmett Till’s lynching and the Greensboro, N.C., sit-ins. Another year passed between the sit-ins and the Freedom Rides.
“A movement is different from a demonstration,” said Taylor Branch, a historian of the civil rights era.
“It’s not automatic — it’s the opposite of automatic,” he said, “that a demonstration in the street is going to lead to a movement that engages enough people, and has a clear enough goal that it has a chance to become institutionalized, like the Voting Rights Act.”
Dr. King’s confidant Bernard Lafayette, 79, could not contain his excitement about recent demonstrations; he has been offering advice to young activists from his home in Tuskegee, Ala. Andrew Young, 88, a former mayor of Atlanta, has vented his frustration over looting and vandalism. And Bob Moses, 85, was cautious in his comments, saying the country seemed to be undergoing an “awakening.”
“I think that’s been its main impact, a kind of revelation about something that has been going on for over a century, a century and a half, right under your noses,” Mr. Moses said. “But there isn’t any indication of how to fix it.”
Protesters gathered at a monument for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington this month.Credit…Cheriss May for The New York Times
Here are some excerpts from those conversations, edited for length and clarity.
When a police officer kneels with protesters, pay attention.
Rutha Mae Harris, 79, was one of the Freedom Singers who toured the South encouraging black people to register to vote. She has spent the past week at her home in Albany, Ga., “glued to MSNBC,” she said.
What we did, you know, we started singing. Sometimes the singing worked, and sometimes it didn’t. The marches I was on, we started singing, and the policemen would drop their billy clubs, and we knew they were no longer planning to hit us. I am a witness of that.
And I have seen this day, this day in time, policemen walking with the protesters, hand in hand with the protesters. I was so happy to see that. We had a little protest here in Georgia, and our police chief was part of the march. You know, back then, the police chief at that time was Chief Pritchett. He’s the one who arrested all of us, and, of course, he arrested Martin Luther King.
What we had, it was not equivalent. When you see the cops kneeling, I just love that. And there are a lot of young white people. I’ve never seen that. We had some white people, but not as many. It is a surprise, and it gives me hope.
Don’t assume this moment will last.
Bob Moses, 85, an educator who in the 1960s led a drive to register black voters in Mississippi, has watched the protests from an apartment in Hollywood, Fla. He said he was moved by a viral video clip of three black men from different generations — including a 45-year-old and a 16-year-old — in a shouting match at a protest in North Carolina, arguing with raw emotion about whether violence was an appropriate response to systemic racism.
It’s like an awakening: We’re trapped. He was trapped, he’s 45. You’re trapped, you’re just 16. What we’ve been doing isn’t working. What are we going to do? That level of consciousness really is new. And it’s not just the broader white population that is waking up to some extent, but also within the African-American population, too.
It may be that the person who killed George Floyd was an aberration. But the system they were a part of, that protects them and is as American as apple pie. So waking up to that — it’s not clear whether the country is capable of waking up to that to its full extent.
Unlike Ms. Harris, he was skeptical that gestures of solidarity from the police were meaningful.
You are talking to an individual policeman in the street, you want him to express empathy about what is happening, but behind the scenes you have high politics. The system works to protect the people who are involved in all of this at different levels, not just the guy who pulls the trigger and puts the knee on the throat.
It’s catharsis for the person asking and for any policeman that responds. It’s what the country has always wanted, to try to solve the problem at the level of the individual. This individual you know directs his or her behavior or tones, and the system just keeps rolling on and producing more atrocities.
It is revelatory that the pressure now is coming from within. It’s been sparked by this one event, but the event really has opened up a crevasse, so to speak, through which all this history is pouring through, like the Mississippi River onto the Delta. It’s pouring into all the streams of TV, cable news, social media. So that is quite different. And the question is, can the country handle it?
We don’t know. I certainly don’t know, at this moment, which way the country might flip. It can lurch backward as quickly as it can lurch forward.
White people are now experiencing police violence firsthand.
Don Rose, 89, a white man who served as Dr. King’s press secretary in Chicago, and went on to mobilize protests against the Vietnam War, was exhilarated by the George Floyd demonstrations. He said video clips and the ability of the internet to spread messages had pulled white people into the current movement.
I wish we had had that. I keep marveling at how wonderful it would have been, rather than using mimeograph machines.
In those days, when we spoke of police brutality, we weren’t often believed. I often pointed to the behavior of the police in Chicago in 1968 — that was really the thing that showed a lot of people that police brutality was a real thing. That was white people’s lesson for what black people had undergone in their own communities.
He reflected on the violence and looting at some recent protests.
Of course, violence is very disheartening and fearsome. But the polling and the reactions of people all around suggests that they certainly understand what was going on. Obviously no one was supporting the violence and opportunistic looting. I don’t know if it is understood or forgiven, but it has apparently not caused a white backlash.
The fact that more whites are participating in these marches all over the country is evidence that over the years, more and more has been heard. The messages are getting across.
Don’t write off anyone as an enemy. Persuade them.
Andrew Young, 88, a former mayor of Atlanta and ambassador to the United Nations, called the wave of protests “a phenomenal moment,” but said they cried out for organization and structure.
What the difference is, is social media. Not only did we not have social media, we hardly had phones. That was a blessing, in many ways, because it took us three or four months in Birmingham to organize. It gave us time to define what we really thought would work, and how to go about it. We knew what we wanted. We knew what victory was. That’s the only thing I’m concerned about.
He offered sharp criticism when initial protests in Atlanta led to looting and violence.
I was upset because there were no marshals that were keeping order. We always made sure, in the organizing community, we tried to keep people who did not adhere to our values and vision, we asked them to stay out.
He described a march in St. Augustine, Fla., in 1964, when Ku Klux Klan members had been deputized by the sheriff to disperse the crowd.
I didn’t know who they were, but I just feel like I can talk to anybody, so I went over there to try to explain to them why we were marching. They were shocked that I went up there by myself. It just didn’t make sense, to me, to beat up women and children who only wanted to get the right to get a hot dog at the lunch counter. So I picked the leaders, and I was doing a pretty good job of talking to them when someone came up behind me and hit me with something. I got stomped a little while, and somebody came up and pulled me up and across the street.
What we were demonstrating was the power of nonviolence. The reason I had to talk to them is that you don’t write people off as the enemy. I didn’t get arrested very much, I usually talked my way through it. When you enter a confrontation, it is with an intention to move to reconciliation.
You may be disappointed. We were.
Fred Gray, 89, who defended Rosa Parks against charges of disorderly conduct, still goes to his law office in Tuskegee, Ala., every day. He said it was discouraging to see young people fight the same battle as he and his contemporaries did.
The same problems we tried to resolve, they have not been solved. I think that what the Constitution requires, we’re still a long way away from solving the problems we need to have solved. That needs to start from the top and come all the way down.
What I tried to do was protect and assist people obtaining their constitutional rights. That’s what I tried to do for 65 years. I was not one of those people who tried to do all of it. My role was to deal with the legal aspect of it.
We didn’t solve it. Several generations later, we have to deal with the same troubles of racism. I was hopeful 60 years ago that we would solve them. I’ve been disappointed so often.
I’m disappointed by the fact that I thought the white power structure, once they saw what black Americans were capable of, that they could perform equally. I thought it would change their hearts, but I don’t think the hearts and minds of many people have changed.
Maybe young people now have the urgency we had then.
Xernona Clayton, 89, who helped organize marches for Dr. King, has been monitoring the protests so raptly from her home in Atlanta that, at times, she has switched on two televisions to follow local and national news. She was deeply dismayed by the initial outbreak of violence, but has since been reassured.
I’m hoping — I’m a positive thinker — I believe this day will create the change we all want.
You can’t just hurt people and kill people and wipe out businesses. It’s frightening, you see burning and looting. That’s frightening. It scares some people. But you have to recognize, if change is going to come, there is pain and suffering, sometimes, that goes with that.
I used to criticize the young people. I thought maybe we, the older people, had solved the biggest problems — you got equal treatment, employment opportunities, civil rights laws, you don’t have to drink from the other fountain. We have made those major changes. I said, “Maybe we solved their problems, and they don’t got the urgency.”
Well, now they got the urgency. Now I think the young people are really bringing the problem to the fore. They got everybody’s attention.
Organize, organize, organize. (And, whatever it takes, vote.)
Bernard Lafayette, 79, who, like Mr. Young, accompanied Dr. King on the 1968 trip to Memphis where he was assassinated, has spent recent years training young activists in nonviolent social change. He traveled to Ferguson, Mo., to advise protest leaders there, and has spent the past weeks fielding phone calls from young organizers.
Oh, I’m very hopeful, but also excited, because I see some very strategic things happening. The only thing we have to be concerned about is the sustainability.
I am more or less thinking about strategy, and that’s where I’m turning my energy. They call me on the phone all the time. I get 15 to 20 calls a day. I answer their questions. Mainly they need training. They need to build coalitions. I prepare folks to take different roles in the movement. You can’t do everything. People have different roles.
Now what I’m looking for is leadership among the young people. I’m looking for a new Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The next thing that we need if we’re going to have a movement that is going to sustain itself — we need music, OK? Once you get those artists singing songs about change and the movement, that helps to stimulate people and bring them together. There is nothing like music to bring people together.
The other most, most important thing, you got to get people who are ready to register to vote. You have got to have people in power who represent you. You’ve got to be negotiating and talking to the people who will make decisions. You can’t just put it out there and be screaming in the air. The air can’t make the change.