(nonviolent protest activity seeded news agendas on civil rights, and elite-led legislation fueled even more favorable media coverage)
The Black protests of the US civil rights era influenced the national political agenda via the media coverage they received.
Omar Wasow was a child of the civil rights movement. His mother worked in Upward Bound, a federal program that helps young people, especially Black youth, get into college. His father participated in voter registration drives in Mississippi as part of the Freedom Summer campaign, in the same cohort that included James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, the activists murdered in 1964 by the Ku Klux Klan.
And yet Wasow came of age in the 1980s, when punitive, law-and-order politics accompanied historic increases in the US prison population. After launching BlackPlanet, the Black social networking site that predated Facebook, and spending a dozen years there, Wasow found himself still puzzling over the rise of hyperpunitive politics in America. How did the civil rights victories of the mid-1960s segue into the harsh, tough-on-crime 1970s and ’80s?
To better understand this shift, Wasow returned to graduate school to examine how Black-led political protests between 1960 and 1972 shaped elite and public opinion. Why did some protests generate a groundswell of attention and sympathy, while others, condemned as riots and crime, meet hostile responses from white Americans?
Wasow, a professor of politics at Princeton University, collected 275,000 front-page headlines from eight different newspapers over the 12 years and sifted through their language. He focused, for example, on whether a protest coded as nonviolent predicted a subsequent headline that included the term civil rights, and whether a protest coded as violent predicted a subsequent headline that employed the word riot.
“It does, and the reverse is not true,” Wasow says. “A violent protest doesn’t predict a headline about civil rights, and nonviolent protest doesn’t predict a headline about riots. So there really is something about what’s happening on the ground that predicts front-page headlines.”
Rather than dwelling on the legitimacy of any particular tactics, Wasow’s research looks at strategic mobilization, or what garners a sympathetic response from the press and the public. Scholars have long viewed agenda-setting as an elite-driven process. “But I’m trying to make a case for what I call punctuated pluralism—the idea that there are moments where outsider voices get heard,” Wasow says. When marginal voices land their issues on the front pages for the general public to see and push their concerns to the forefront of public consciousness, Wasow calls it “agenda seeding.”
To measure the effects of protester-initiated violence, Wasow carefully studied the 1968 presidential election, calculating that violent protests swayed an estimated 1.5-7.9 percent of voters to choose Richard Nixon, the law-and-order candidate, over his rival, Hubert Humphrey, the lead author of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. “To be clear, there’s a great deal of violence by the state against protesters,” Wasow says, “but my focus is on what protesters do.” In 1968, nonviolent protest activity seeded news agendas on civil rights, and elite-led legislation fueled even more favorable media coverage. Activists have opportunities to shape public opinion and media narratives, Wasow says, according to what they do.
Wasow traces a clear line between violent protests and more voters preferring the law-and-order candidate. He also finds that proximity, both temporal and geographic, matters. Combing through county-level voting patterns, he discovered that counties within 100 miles of a nonviolent protest voted more liberally in 1964, 1968, and 1972. The same effect was evident within two years of peaceful demonstrations. The reverse was also true for counties proximate to protester-initiated violence, where voters moved in a more conservative direction.
“Wasow’s is one of the first studies to look at the shock of the entire period of social unrest across the entire country in a way that attempts to identify the causal effect of that unrest on politics,” says Ryan Enos, a professor of government at Harvard University. “The causal part is key because we really want to know if the unrest itself, and not something else, had an effect on politics.”
Wasow’s analysis demonstrates that America’s conservative turn in 1968 was anything but inevitable. Just four years earlier, a majority of white voters aligned with civil rights and overwhelmingly backed Lyndon B. Johnson. In drawing lessons from the 1960s, Enos warns that caution is required.
“Racial attitudes and politics are broadly different today than in the 1960s,” Enos says. “Those riots unfolded in a period of nearly peak racial tension in the 20th-century United States and against a backdrop of large-scale demographic turnover and growing segregation. Moreover, the destruction of the 1960s riots dwarfed that which we see today, making the comparison difficult.”
Daniela Blei, Historian, writer, and editor of scholarly books.
Her writing can be seen at daniela-blei.com/writing.
She tweets sporadically: @tothelastpage.