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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

What we're seeing now: Sit-ins, civil rights and climate action

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. addresses crowd during the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy National Archives
In 1961, 57 percent of Americans thought sit-ins and freedom rides hurt rather than helped the civil rights movement. 
Any guesses where public opinion on climate action is polling today?
Daily Climate Staff Report

Editor's note: This is the first installment of a new feature looking at trends behind the headlines.
Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech during the civil rights march in Washington, D.C.

60 percent of Americans oppose "non-violent civil disobedience" protesting government or business actions contributing to climate change. That's about where the nation was in 1961 on civil rights.

As the nation marks that landmark, it's worth a moment to contrast public opinion in the 1960s on civil rights sit-ins against the public's view today concerning civil disobedience on climate change.
Last week researchers at Yale and George Mason universities released survey results showing that 60 percent of Americans opposed "non-violent civil disobedience" protesting government or business actions contributing to climate change.

That's about where America was in 1961 when a Gallup Poll asked whether "'sit-ins' at lunch counters, 'Freedom Buses,' and other demonstrations by Negroes will hurt or help the Negro's chances of being integrated in the South?"

Author and activist Bill McKibben is arrested at the gates of the White House in 2011 during a protest against the Keystone XL pipeline (bottom). Civil rights and climate action – a generation apart – are polling about the same. Photo courtesy Jay Mallin 
Fifty-seven percent of the country felt the sit-ins were unnerving, Andrew B. Lewis noted in a 2010 Los Angeles Times analysis of the civil rights era.

But while black elders tried to control the sit-ins, black youth formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and took the movement to the "most violent reaches of the Deep South," Lewis noted. 

"Aggressive tactics – the courting of arrests and the willingness to risk beatings – forced the confrontation with racial segregation that compelled congressional intervention," Lewis wrote. "The great milestones of the movement – the freedom rides, Freedom Summer, Selma, Birmingham – grew from the tactical innovation of the sit-ins. King may have stirred the nation's soul with the movement's poetry, but [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] moved it to action with the prose of its grass-roots organizing."

With the civil rights anniversary, Theophilus Eugene "Bull" Connor is back in the news again.

There's an argument to be made that the former Birmingham public safety commissioner, an outspoken advocate for segregation, did more to advance civil rights than almost any other.

It was Connor who set policemen and firemen with nightsticks, fire hoses and attack dogs upon hundreds of African American marchers in May, 1963. The resulting national uproar prompted President Kennedy to address the nation on television, where he promised to send a tough new civil rights bill to Congress. That legislation became the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

"The Civil Rights movement should thank God for Bull Connor," Kennedy reportedly said. "He helped it as much as Abraham Lincoln." 

In that same vein, Jeff Welsch of the Bozeman, Mont.-based Greater Yellowstone Coalition praises former Interior Secretary James Watt as "the signature force behind a generation of astonishing accomplishments" in Yellowstone National Park and beyond.

Writing in High Country News, Welsch says an entire generation of conservationists mobilized in response to Watt's double-barreled attack on federal lands during his three-year stint as President Reagan's top lands man. "There is something to be said for a man whose vision of an industrial juggernaut throughout the West galvanized millions," Welsch said.

Bull Connor and James Watt left a mark in history by extreme overreach and ended up having impact opposite what they intended. It will be interesting to see, 40 or 50 years from now, who fills their historic niche for climate change.

The Daily Climate is an independent, foundation-funded news service that covers climate change. Find us on Twitter @TheDailyClimate or email editor Douglas Fischer at