African American demonstrators outside the White House, with signs "We demand the right to vote, everywhere" and signs protesting police brutality against civil rights demonstrators in Selma, Alabama. March 12, 1965. Source: Library of Congress

Taking it to the Streets

Protest in America

The election of Donald Trump set off a seemingly continuous wave of protests across the country. This is just the latest surge of resistance. Past protests have included varied groups – from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street. On this episode of BackStory, Ed, Nathan and Brian look at the central role that political protests have played throughout American history.

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ANNOUNCER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis foundation’s.

MALE SPEAKER: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory.

BRIAN: Welcome to BackStory, the show that looks at the history behind today’s headlines. I’m Brian Bellah.

NATHAN: I’m Nathan Connelly.

JOANNE: And I’m Joanne Freeman. Each week, my co-host and I, all historians, explore a topic that’s been in the news. And today, our topic is going to be the history of protests. We’re going to begin 3 in Sacramento, California 50 years ago. The exact date actually is May, 2nd 1967.

BRIAN: That morning, 30 black men and women walked up the steps of the statehouse, carrying loaded guns. Those men and women were members of the Black Panther Party, and they were protesting a gun control bill under consideration by the state legislature.

NATHAN: And they walked right in the front door, there was no security that they had to pass, and walked right into the legislative chamber while it was in session with their loaded guns.

PETER: This is Adam Winkler, a professor of Constitutional Law at UCLA.

ADAM WINKLER: The Panthers weren’t there to commit violence or to take hostages, they were there as part of a political protest and they wanted to make it clear that they had a second amendment right to bear arms, and that they needed that right.

BRIAN: After the Panthers were turned away from the assembly chamber where the bill was being debated, they gathered on the lawn outside. One of the group’s leaders, Bobby Seale, read a prepared statement, warning black people to quote, “arm themselves before it’s too late.”

ADAM WINKLER: The Panthers were making a novel and that someone argued timely– argument– that the Panthers had the right to bear arms as a basic civil right, that it was as essential as the right to vote, the right to own property. And they believe that in order to protect their constitutional rights, they had to be able to, frankly, police the police.

BRIAN: In Oakland, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton began a practice of policing the police, where they’d send out armed police patrols to follow police cars as they patrolled. And when the police officers would pull over an African-American, the Panthers would stand– they’d pull over too. And they’d stand off to the side with their guns pointed straight up in the air or straight down at the ground, which under California law was lawful at the time, considered a non-threatening possession of the firearms– and they would shout out advice to the person being hassled, and also, just sort of keep a careful eye. A police officer was a lot less likely to beat up an African-American when he’s surrounded by other African-Americans who have loaded guns on them.

And this, as you can imagine, the Black Panthers policy of policing the police didn’t make the Oakland police very happy. And so they pushed one of their allies in the California state legislature, a guy named Don Mulford, to push for new gun control laws. Laws that would take guns out of the hands of the Black Panthers.

BRIAN: Which brings us back to that 1967 protest at the California’s statehouse. It was that gun control bill, Don Mulford’s bill, that was under consideration when Bobby Seale and his companions carried their guns into the state capitol. When that bill passed, it banned the public carrying of loaded firearms. The Panthers policing the police was outlawed.

ADAM WINKLEY: The very next year, President Lyndon Johnson signed a National Gun Control Act that outlawed the sale of guns by mail, it prohibited felons and people the mentally unstable from buying guns. And it was argued that the act was part of a number of different pieces of legislation brought on by the assassination of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.

BRIAN: But, you know, the law sparked a lot of pushback. The gun lobby argued that it deprive law abiding citizens access to guns for self-defense. And before long, middle class whites began claiming that gun ownership was a constitutional right. It helped propel the modern gun rights movement, in fact. Today, the backbone of that movement is mostly white and conservative, a far cry from the Black Panthers.

JOANNE: That’s the funny thing about protest, it can start small and local, and then move through American society in all kinds of unexpected ways.


ADAM WINKLEY: We’ve actually seen an Americans stage all kinds of protests just in the past several years, I mean, just think about it, we’ve had the Occupy Wall Street Movement, The Tea Party movement, protests against the Iraq war. And yet, all of this seems to pale in comparison with what we’re seeing just in the last few months. Right? I mean, we’ve seen record numbers of Americans protesting Trump in the Women’s March, we’ve seen the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, we’ve seen town hall meetings across America. I mean, this has been an amazing groundswell of activism.

BRIAN: So, today, on the show, we’ll be visiting some memorable moments from BackStory segements on protests. We’ll explore the media’s role in the 1963 March on Washington. And we’re also going to look at more unusual uprisings in American history, a protest by the wives of Confederate soldiers.


JOANNE: But first, let’s travel back to the 1770s and 1780s. In the first decades of the New Republic, Americans were basically protesting all the time. And some of those protests were peaceful, but some of them were most definitely not peaceful. A few years ago, we did a show on the history of populism in America. BackStory host, Peter Oniff, talked to historian, Paul Gilenya, about how early Americans rioted over pretty much everything. Gilenya began by describing a protest over a seemingly innocuous issue in 1774 Massachusetts, smallpox vaccinations.

PAUL: We all think a smallpox vaccination means as being a major medical innovation, and that this is occurring in the 18th century. The problem was is that, vaccination, in these days, was to get a small case of the smallpox. You essentially cut your skin and you put a little pustule and then you get a mild case, well then you become contagious. And so, what you’ll have, and right on the eve of the Revolutionary War, you have people throwing rocks and demonstrating against the richer people who could afford an inoculation for fear that people who get inoculated, who have carried the disease and spread the disease–

PETER: That’s a great point. So, there is a class dimension to this, Paul?

PAUL: Yes. And they felt that the government should step in and prevent this sort of inoculation, and instead of the government, the crowd stepped in.

PETER: Where politics fails, according to the people that get angry, and they demand action.

PAUL: Right. essentially, the magistrates, who would be the local officials in a community, like Marblehead, were not preventing these poor people from getting vaccinated. So, the people got frustrated with the magistrates– who, by the way, were rich people, who might be getting vaccinated themselves– So, what do you do? You don’t want to catch smallpox, and so people rushed in the street, demonstrated, tear down a couple of outbuildings connected to these rich people. They did things that they thought were going to protect them from infection.

PETER: Paul, this is a fascinating example of a smallpox riots. But mobbs were rioting throughout this period, culminating in the revolution. But rioting didn’t stop just because Americans won their independence, did it?

PAUL: No. Rioting continues. And if you were to ask me, and I say this with a winse on my face– what is my favorite all time riot? And I say that because–

PETER: You don’t condone them, I understand that.

PAUL: Rioting is a violent– can often be a violent activity. And, of course, the riot I’m thinking about– or the series of riots I’m thinking about are the Baltimore Riots of 1812. And the Baltimore Riots of 1812 began where there was a newspaper, which was publishing articles against the entry of the United States into the War of 1812. And the people of Baltimore felt that this violated the community’s interest, and so they go to this office and they tear the building down.

PETER: How about free speech, Paul?

PAUL: Free speech.

PETER: Freedom of the press.

PAUL: Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? The community felt there shouldn’t be free speech, if you’re imposing this war, which, eventually, a small group of militia intruded themselves, and they take these people who had published this newspaper and they put them in jail for safekeeping. And then, the next night, the mob attacks the jail. And the mayor, who supports the war, steps in front of the mob and he says to the mob, you know, guys, you can’t do this, you can’t break into the jail. And somebody turns to him and says, Mayor Johnson, I know you very well– so he was identifying this kind of political personal connection– he says, there are times when the laws of the land must sleep and the laws of nature and reason prevail. And then the crowd bursts into the jail, and there is no reason. They tear these guys apart, they beat these people to a pulp, they take penknives and stick it into their cheeks, and they take hot candle grease and drip it in their eyes. And one guy, who is being held in the jail, who had been a Revolutionary War general says, gentlemen, gentlemen, stop, stop, you can’t do this. And they just beat him to a pulp and he’s killed.

Well, what I’m trying to suggest is that, the Baltimore Riots represent a transition from an 18th century form of rioting to a 19th century form of rioting in which riots become increasingly violent.


JOANNE: That was University of Oklahoma historian, Paul Gilenya, in a 2015 interview with BackStory host Peter Onuf.


I think that as Paul Gilenya suggests, over time, writing becomes– and just mob violence– becomes more violent. And, you know, there’s a whole literature. There’s a lot of historians who’ve written about the fact that there’s kind of a ritualistic element to early, early American protests, like pre-revolutionary protests that people would expect a bunch of people to go into the street and be angry about something, and then do something very targeted. You know, like, we’re mad at the press, so we shall go and hurt the press. And then parade around a little bit and maybe burn in effigy and then go home.

BRIAN: What strikes me about both of the protests that Gilenya talked about is that, they, quite literally, involve life and death matters. In the case of smallpox, these people understood that they could die from this disease. In the case of 1812, you’re talking about being willing to sacrifice one’s life to go to war in what became known as the War of 1812. And I have to feel that the matter being protested has something to do with the degree of violence unleashed.

JOANNE: Yeah, no, I think that’s a really good point. And I think it’s an example of that would be one of the more famous acts of protest during the Revolutionary period, which is what we now call the Boston Tea Party, which was a protest against attacks on tea. And a group of people in Boston decided that they would go onto these ships where tea was waiting to be unloaded into the harbor and that they would destroy this tea, and make a statement about the fact that they were not going to pay this tax. So they were making– I mean, it was a strong statement, and they were, essentially–

BRIAN: It was strong tea.

JOANNE: Well, it became kind of weak tea, in the water, in the ocean, it was wimpy tea. But, the point is, that was a really targeted, controlled act of protest, so that people went on board they really didn’t want to damage the ships, they really didn’t want to do any harm to anything.

BRIAN: Are you serious?

JOANNE: Supposedly they swept the decks of the ships when they were done, so they didn’t leave a mess behind. And I think they were worried about hurting the locks– the padlocks– to the hatches. It’s a strong statement and it’s a dangerous act, but they just want to register protest, they actually don’t want to do damage.

BRIAN: But it’s not a life and death matter. Ultimately, it’s an economic matter, which is important.

JOANNE: Exactly. Exactly. So there’s risk involved. And I guess, I don’t want to suggest that early protests are quaint and that somehow they then become violent. I think it’s actually– but anyway, I guess I do think– the larger point here seems to me that, yes, I do think rioting and violence of this sort becomes more violent, but in saying that, I don’t want to suggest that the earlier violence is quaint. I think another example of that– and this will be a true confession from an early American historian– you know, you read forever about the practice of tarring and feathering. But when you actually get down to the nitty gritty details of what that is, it’s brutal, it’s nasty, it’s hot tar being poured onto people and then feathers being put on top. But that hot tar often takes the skin with it. You know, I mean, it a nasty, horrible, burning, disfiguring thing. So, again, as much as you can see well that’s very ritualistic, you know, tarring and feathering, it’s brutal too.

BRIAN: It’s pretty violent.

JOANNE: Yes. Very violent. So there’s like a spectrum, maybe. And, as Brian suggested, maybe it really is pegged in part to the nature of what’s being protested and the groupness of it.

PETER: So, we’re going to have to take a quick break. But when we get back, we’re going to talk about how Southern women wage their own war during the Civil War. And I bet you, dollars to donuts, they did not clean up after themselves.

JOANNE: OK, Brian, I want you to do something for me. I want you to close your eyes.

BRIAN: Both of them?

JOANNE: Both eyes.

BRIAN: All right, the second one just shut.

JOANNE: Thank you very much. OK. Now, I want you to think of somebody who you really care about.

BRIAN: All right.

JOANNE: And now, I want you to tell them something very personal right here on the air. I want you to tell them a podcast that you just know they would absolutely love.

BRIAN: Oh, that’s such a setup, Joanne– BackStory of course.

JOANNE: Of course. Of course.

BRIAN: But I also have a few more. I love Amicus, I love Slate’s Political Gab Fest. I confess, I love Cereal and I love this American Life.

JOANNE: There are so many good shows out there. I mean, that’s just a great example. And that’s why all this month, we’re going to be asking you to tell a friend about BackStory or any other podcast that you love, because we all know people who just don’t get podcasts, or how to find one that they like, or even just how to find them at all.

BRIAN: I have trouble finding a friend.

JOANNE: Oh, Brian, I’m your friend.

BRIAN: Thank you, Joanne.

JOANNE: And it’s easy, when you have friends. You could tell them about your favorite podcast in person, or you can tell us about what you recommend to them by going on social media and using the hashtag tripod. T-R-Y-P-O-D. Thanks for spreading the word.

BRIAN: I’m typing as you speak, Joanne.



So now is go to the spring of 1863. You have white women across the Confederacy taking to the streets, but they’re not protesting against the Civil War, they’re not protesting against slavery, they just don’t have enough to eat.

ED: Last summer our co-host, Ed Ayers, explored this unexpected protest for show we did on women in politics. We’ll let Ed do his thing from here.

PETER: Here’s what happened. By the second winter of the Civil War, white women throughout the Confederacy could not feed their families, because most able-bodied white males were in the Confederate army.

STEPHANIE: There’s not even teenage sons left on these farms.

PETER: This is historian, Stephanie McCurry. She says that, at first, these soldiers wives wrote letters to state and local officials begging for help. McCurry discovered hundreds of these letters, and here’s one written by a North Carolina woman in 1863.

STEPHANIE: We have seen the time when we could call our little children and our husbands to our tables and have a plenty. And now we have become beggars and starvers, and no way to help ourselves. And then she said that she and the other soldiers wives could not do enough field work to get subsistence from the land.

Sometimes in the same letter it would start out like a begging letter and then it would turn angry in the middle. We will have bread or blood.


ED: And they meant it. In March and April of 1863, mobs of white women broke into stores and government warehouses across the Confederacy to steal food in what were known as bread riots. There were more than a dozen of these uprisings, from Mobile, Alabama and Salisbury, North Carolina, up to Pittsburgh, Virginia. The biggest riot took place in the capital of the Confederacy, in Richmond, Virginia on April, 2nd 1863.

STEPHANIE: Around 9 o’clock in the morning, a clerk in the government office, John Jones, who left this amazing diary, describes being pulled to his window by the sound of these women– about 300 women, with another crowd of men and boys behind them. And he said, totaling about 1,000 people, they converge on particular merchants, and they demand– they sort of interview the merchants. They say, how much is bacon a pound? And the guy says, you know, well, it’s $1.20 a pound. And they say, how can women in our position pay $1.20 a pound for bacon? You needs to give it to us at government prices. And he says, no. And then they break down the door. And they begin this basically four hour riot in the warehouse district or the war district of Richmond. And they threw men off of wagons in the street to commandeer the wagons to haul off the loot. They took up– seized a huge amount of stuff.

ED: Well, people may know that Richman’s the capital of the Confederacy. You would have thought they would have had some soldiers there or something. Why did they let this rage for four hours? Why didn’t they try to nip this in the bud?

STEPHANIE: They did eventually put this thing down by force, they called out troops to put down this riot and then a lot of them were arrested.

ED: Confederate officials were puzzled by how well organized these riots seem. The leading Richmond newspaper offered the standard explanation, men did it, or even Yankee conspirators had put these women up to it. But in Richmond, the trial records provided some clues to the contrary.

STEPHANIE: When they get into court, they find out that this is not the work of men or Yankee operatives, it’s the work of one woman, Mary Jackson, a huckster and meet at the city market. And, the night before the riot, she called a meeting of 300 town and country women– some of them from as far as 11 miles away– people she had recruited. And they had a meeting in the Belvedere Baptist Church. She got up into the pulpit– so how acceptable that was– and she kind of rallied her troops, and she told these women that they were going to organize themselves, they were going to behave peaceably, they were going to explain their reasons, but that they were to come tomorrow and they were to leave their children at home. That is to say, we’re going to have a riot, you’ll need a babysitter, and come armed.

ED: More than 70 Richmond rioters were put on trial. Many were fined or sent to prison, although Mary Jackson, the ringleader, was not.

Despite the clampdown in Richmond, the riots had a positive outcome for women. They forced officials throughout the Confederacy to pay attention to the needs of civilians, not just soldiers.

STEPHANIE: First of all, they started to return food from the Army to the worst hit counties, so they gave back food that they had seized by the tax in kind. They created food relief programs that the welfare policy and the Confederacy expanded enormously. And they allowed county relief officials to buy corn at government prices, which is what the women had wanted in the first place.

ED: So, I think that if people were imagining places in the United States where women were likely to be depoliticized, it might have been in the Confederacy. You know, southern lady hood and all that sort of stuff. And yet, we have here, one of the most visible and, in some ways, effective rebellions of women in [INAUDIBLE] Central America are coming out of the South. Do you think it’s mainly a condition that they were put in such conditions that they had no choice? Did this have a Southern accent in any way?

STEPHANIE: Absolutely. This is desperation. But people can just lie down and die in moments of desperation, and these women got up and fought back, and they fought back and sort of forced officials to answer to them, like, you took our men, you promised to protect us, now you better act. So the fact that these women, who have no legs to stand on, no ground on which they can think of themselves as citizens of the nation with rights that are being violated– none of that is within their grasp, and yet still, when the government forces them into this really intimate relationship with them, it starts to take their husbands, and their sons, and their food, people respond.

ED: Yeah. What that suggests is that this grassroots rebellion had very direct results in what people do think of as politics, and the public policy of the state. So, it’s hard to imagine they could have gotten those results in any other way, rather than threatening to burn things down.

STEPHANIE: It’s just so fascinating, I think, and so moving in a human sense to recognize that, when we go into the archives and dig around, we find these unexpected things.

ED: Exactly.

STEPHANIE: And one of them is that, no matter how many times we’re told– and the history we read is really men do this and men do that– I mean, really, it’s quite outrageous. You get the 21st century, you can still basically write a history of the world without any women in it. It infuriates me. There is lots of evidence of how women made history, and I think this is a great example of that. It’s like a rip in history, and that’s, I think, why historians write so much about wars, because wars create conditions of rapid change, they also leave records.


PETER: That was Columbia University historian, Stephanie McCurry, interviewed by our own


So, the thing that jumps out to me, right off the bat, from Professor McCurry’s remarks, is this notion of having intimate relationships with the government. Right? This idea that the government and you have a kind of bond, and if that bond is violated, then violence can be the result.

JOANNE: You know, we’re talking about a female protest, right? And part of the power of that is the fact that they’re women, and I believe that Professor McCurry, in the interview, talks about, in a way, this is making a new politics, it’s people who have been excluded, who are now asserting, in a way, that they are part of the system. But, when I listen to that piece, what it made me think of was a complaint that Thomas Jefferson made about France and about women in France during their revolutionary moment. And what upset him was, he said that women, at that moment, they weren’t part of the official system, and so they were able to go between the lines and behind the scenes and get to people in power and assert demands and make claims in a way that no one can put their finger on. Now, in this case, this is, in a sense, the opposite. These people are putting themselves in the middle of the public sphere and watching them protest. But, I wonder, at the degree to which the fact that they were women, how that shaped the perception of what was going on.

PETER: So, this notion that there are legitimate expectations, that as a citizen, as a woman, as a child, that one can expect the kind of care that one can expect I think is really powerful, and I think it goes a long way to explaining the nature of protest, regardless of what period you’re talking about. If you believe you struck some kind of social contract with the government, and that was effectively violated, it can lead to some pretty explosive consequences. You know, the one thing that–

JOANNE: Revolutionary.

PETER: Revolutionary, exactly. No, it’s true, it’s true. I mean, I’m always amazed, for instance, when you think about these kind of riots or rebellions, you know there’s always a kind of, again, intimate quality. There’s almost a surgical quality to them. Like, the women in Richmond, they know exactly where to strike when the bread is not provided. Right? You think about cities that were burning during the 1960s, or even race riots or in the 1920s, the merchants who were charging you too much money for that second-hand TV, that story had to burn, right? In a place like Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, if there was a black employer with a white employee, that employee, during the race riot there, would go to the black boss and try to burn his business down as an expression of a relationship that had simply gone awry. And so it’s a powerful example of these things that seem really personal. Right? These riots, these explosions, at the street level and at the personal level, are profoundly intimate.

JOANNE: And it’s a reminder that, although, on the one hand, protests can and probably are meant to often have a broad sweeping impact, that they’re also meant to and do have a local and a personal impact as well that’s part of their power.

PETER: I don’t think that’s right.


BRIAN: We’re going to take a short break. When we get back, how media coverage help or hurt protests. A words from today’s sponsor.

Since Donald Trump’s inauguration, millions of Americans have staged demonstrations, from the Women’s March on Washington in January, to protests at town halls across America. What you think about those protests probably depends on where you get your news.

JOANNE: Take, for example, the Women’s March on Washington in January.

MALE SPEAKER: The whole world was watching. History being made in Washington, in Boston, in Los Angeles.

WOMAN SPEAKER: Apparently they are unable to separate the process of our freedom of elections and the institution of the presidency from their litany of causes. I think–

JOANNE: We’re going to let you guess which is Fox News and which is MSNBC.

PETER: Back in the summer of 1963, TV coverage of the historic March on Washington suffered from a different set of biases. Back in the good old days, there were three major TV networks that dominated broadcast news, and they all claimed to be the same kind of objective. But, for the better part of that decade, their coverage was pretty consistent and asked largely one big question, whether there was violence or maybe the potential for violence.

The lead up to the March on Washington, one of the most peaceful mass protests in American history, was no exception.

ANA: We have the Birmingham Campaign in May of ’63, which, of course, everybody remembers; the dogs, the fire hoses, confrontations in the streets, particularly with schoolchildren.

PETER: This is Ana [INAUDIBLE], a media studies professor at the University of Virginia. She talked to co-host, Ed Ayers, a few years back.

ANA: What we don’t remember as much is throughout the rest of the summer of 1963, leading up to the March, there were other civil rights kind of flash-points, particularly in the northern South. So Cambridge, Maryland was a major civil rights battleground that got a lot of coverage, and there was a lot of violence, again, not by the African-American civil rights protesters, but the way that campaigns like this tended to get covered was news men– and they were all men– tended to often go into the passive voice. So it was never really clear, at least in the way they were narrating news stories, who was perpetuating the violence.

So, this news frame is violence inevitable gets attached to the coverage leading up to the March on Washington.

ED: Now, TV is still a pretty new thing in 1963. And how did all three networks– if people can imagine such a situation– how did they plan to cover the March on Washington?

ANA: Covering something as big as what the March on Washington was presumed to be was a big job, and so the networks actually pooled their resources. One network had a pool of cameras in one place, another at the Lincoln Memorial. So this is something that the networks had some experience doing, particularly with things like presidential inaugurations, but they had never done anything like this for a protest march.

ED: And so, what happens on the actual day?

ANA: Well, we know what happens on the actual day. I mean, we’ve all seen the images and the pictures, and, you know, they’ve come down to us 50 years later as these inspiring images of nonviolent, dignified, purposeful protest. But what’s interesting when you look at the coverage, and I looked at the coverage of both ABC and CBS, the television cameras seemed to be very specifically looking both for crowd shots, but then there’s always this cutting in to what I like to call portraits of dignity. And then, always, this search for a few white marchers to insert among the African-American marchers.

You would think, from looking at the television news coverage, that whites made up about half of the 250,000 people who came to the March on Washington, because the news directors seem to be so insistently looking for white people to center their images on surrounded by African-American marchers. But we get this image of peaceful, dignified marching to the point that you get news commentators, kind of over and over again, suggesting this is like a picnic. It’s a joyous occasion, you know, nothing like the concerns about violence being inevitable. You see, of course, it’s the exact opposite.

ED: That it was never an inevitable in the first place. You know, never pay attention to what we were saying before.

ANA: Yeah. Well, of course, if the news personnel had really kind of dug a little bit deeper and looked at the way that Byard Rustin, who was the main organizer of the march, and the SDLC, which was Martin Luther King’s organization, and the other civil rights organizations that came together to plan the march– had they actually covered the strategies that the civil rights organizations were using to ensure that things remained nonviolent, that news peg just would never have materialized. Because everything about the organizing was to ensure that people who came to the march knew what they were coming for, and they had been given their marching orders, you know, they were told to dress well, they weren’t told. They were quite explicitly told the eyes of the nation, the eyes of the world are going to be on you.

ED: So we can’t imagine that the TV reporters just allowed themselves to show hour after hour of this footage without saying something critical about it. What kind of commentary that would sort of add some narrative tension to this did they lay down?

ANA: Well, when the journalists start to kind of reassert their position as journalists, you know, because they don’t want to spend too much time celebrating just how wonderful this is, because, you know, that’s not being a journalist. You know, the violence is inevitable news peg that, of course, has disappeared. And what ends up happening is, the new news peg tends to be, well, this won’t have any impact on Congress.

So, here we have all three networks, you know, expending a huge amount of their resources, time, and effort to cover this march, and then they kind of end up coming to the conclusion that– but the march is not what is going to change any minds or influence Congress, because that’s not where politics happens. Politics happens in the voting booth. Politics happens in discussions with your congressman. Politics is not what happens when people are marching in the street.


PETER: That was Ana [INAUDIBLE], media studies professor at the University of Virginia. She was interviewed by our co-host Ed Ayers.


BRIAN: Joanne, Nathan, just how wrong can the media be? I mean, here we are, at the cusp of a decade of mass protests that is going to remake what politics is all about, and, somehow, the media– they just don’t see what’s happening in front of their very own eyes.

NATHAN: I mean, and they’re partied to that transformation. Right? I mean, the creation of a national civil rights agenda, which the March on Washington was totally focused on trying to generate, runs directly through the proliferation of the television, the newspapers, the kind of mass media outlets that are covering that march. But I think, it’s also really important to keep in mind that, part of what was supposed to happen with the March on Washington, by amplifying the platform of jobs and freedom, by thinking about the centrality of nonviolent direct action to any movements going forward, was to try to standardize black politics and standardize kind of civil rights politics.

ED: And shine a light on it, right?

NATHAN: It was. It was. And it didn’t come without certain costs. So when they decided, for instance, not to allow women to speak at all on the day of the march, that was a bad look in terms of a national movement. And, you know, Malcolm X was as critical as other observers about the fact that there wasn’t more militancy, right. And so what the press saw as a benefit, he actually saw as the limitations of the march. And he and he called it a picnic in a pejorative sense. But that dampening, I think, you know, was another feature of their efforts to nationalize their claims.

ED: As shown on the national network news.

NATHAN: Right.

JOANNE: So you’re talking, Nathan, about the nationalization of it helping standardize the local. And I would add, also, empowering it. I mean, again, I keep talking about the American Revolution, because, boy, that was a big protest.

NATHAN: That’s what you’re here for. No, it’s OK.

JOANNE: I’m an 18th century historian. But that’s also a moment in which you have a sense of a general problem, but you have a lot of local organization about this general problem. And what makes it, or what helps really create a revolutionary moment is the newspaper. Spreading that, and nationalizing it, in a similar way to what you’re talking about here, Nathan. Creating a national audience, and suggesting that there is a national something going on, so that while the local is still there and still in operation, there’s a power that wasn’t there without that kind of frame. It’s easy to forget how colonies were like little nation states, and that there wasn’t any kind of national anything. And so the impact of these newspapers– kind of like we’re talking about here with the television– was pretty impressive.

ED: And is it also fair to say that, in that case, it brought a lot more participants into politics than had existed before?

JOANNE: Yes. And partly though but by empowering and sort of putting a lot of steam into what was happening locally. But yes, I do think that’s true.

NATHAN: You know, what’s so remarkable about this is, it’s almost like we expect movements now to have a certain kind of standardized look.

ED: Right.

NATHAN: Right? I mean, certainly, nonviolent direct action is a big part of that marches in open public places, but I was even thinking about the 2011 march in Occupy Wall Street, where there was a real critique that was leveled largely by the media, that the activists in Zuccotti Park, in New York, and elsewhere, didn’t really have a demand, or there wasn’t a single platform piece that they could point to say, this is what we want the government to do in response to massive wealth and inequality, for instance, right? So they had great rhetorical terms. I would say the notions of the 99% versus the 1%– that totally stuck. But, I mean, I don’t know if anybody could quickly rattle off what the platform was, or what the ask was, of that protest, right? In a way, that critique feels like it stuck a little bit.

ED: And they didn’t have something else, Nathan. They didn’t have the kind of leaders that the press needs to go to get good quotations.

NATHAN: Right.

ED: To center stories around that one or two charismatic individuals. Thank Martin Luther King, for instance.

JOANNE: Framing. We’re talking about framing again.

NATHAN: Absolutely. This goes back to that point, right, about the media and the media’s approach to these protests, and there is still, even with the March on Washington in ’63, a kind of– let’s say– let’s call it conservative leadership model. That is absolutely one of the reasons why the movement becomes so fragile by the late 1960s; with assassinations, with co-optations, you can more easily demobilize a lot of these movements, if you can identify kind of top heavy parts of the movement structure and basically decapitate them, right? I mean, all of this, I think, really did provide a certain kind of lesson from movements going forward, in the 2000s and elsewhere, but, not without certain costs, like a lack of messaging or certain kinds of vagueness, at least from the part of some of the folks who are less sympathetic politically.


ED: That’s going to do it for us today, but you can keep that conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of the episode, or ask us your burning history questions. You’ll find us at, or send an email to We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter @BackStoryradio. And feel free to review the new show in iTunes store. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

MALE SPEAKER: BackStory is produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment. And by History Channel; history made every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: This episode of BackStory was produced by Andrew Parsons, Brigid McCarthy, Nina Ernest, Emily Gaddick, and Ramona Martinez. Jamal Milner is our technical director, Diana Williams is our digital editor, and Julie Thompson is a researcher. Additional help came from Sequoia Carillo, Emma Craig, Aidan Lee, Courtney Spanga, Robin Blue, and Elizabeth Spach.

Our theme song written by Nick Thorburn. And other music in this episode came from Catsa and Paddington Bear.

Brian Balogh is professor of History at the University of Virginia and Dorothy Compton professor at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. Ed Ayers is professor of the Humanities, and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is professor of History and American Studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert BackStory Adams associate professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University.

BackStory was created by Andrew Windham, for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.


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