This material was originally published in Seeing Like an Activist: Civil Disobedience and the Civil Rights Movement by Erin R. Pineda, and has been reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press. For permission to reuse this material, please visit


Two Fires

The trouble started late on the evening of June 16, 1964, when members of the Ku Klux Klan set fire to a church outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi. Mount Zion Church was slated to host one of many new “freedom schools” across the state — grassroots institutions designed to empower and organize local Black youth through an alternative curriculum focused on Black history, civic education, and nonviolent resistance. Hoping to salvage their early progress in the area, two CORE organizers — James Chaney and Michael Schwerner — traveled to Neshoba County to check in with the Mount Zion parish and secure housing for project volunteers. What happened next is well known: Chaney, Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, a summer volunteer who had accompanied them on the trip, found themselves in the hands of the local sheriff, and promptly thereafter, the Klan. When they failed to call their local headquarters that night, the CORE staff knew to expect the worst.

It was six weeks before the FBI located their bodies, buried deep in an earthen dam on a local farm. Goodman and Schwerner, both white New Yorkers, had each been shot once in the head; Chaney, Black and from nearby Meridian, had been subjected to a brutal beating and castration before being shot three times. As the lynching of three young civil rights workers drew national attention and prompted intense public outcry, the federal government and the FBI continued to insist there was nothing they could do to protect civil rights workers in the South. Meanwhile, activists wondered if the bodies of their fellow organizers would have been found at all had Schwerner and Goodman not been middle class and white. It was a devastatingly reasonable question: in the midst of the investigation, the FBI stumbled across the bodies of eight additional Black victims, including a fourteen-year-old boy wearing a CORE T-shirt, whose disappearance and likely murder had generated no such national outrage and prompted no serious investigation. The conjunction of these gruesome deaths with the passage of the Civil Rights Act — what should have been a key moment of victory in a decades-long nonviolent struggle — only exacerbated the anger and frustration on the ground. Speaking at the Oxford Union later that year, Malcolm X summed up a pervasive mood among many civil rights activists: “Civil rights bill down the drain. No matter how many bills pass, black people in that country, where I’m from, still our lives are not worth two cents. And the government has shown its inability, or either its unwillingness to do whatever is necessary to protect life and property where the black American is concerned.”

One month to the day after Mount Zion burned to the ground, and more than a 1,000 miles away, the death of Jerome Powell at the hands of police set Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant ablaze with the “fire this time.” Powell, a fifteen-year-old African American from the Bronx, was shot three times by Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan, a white police officer, off-duty and in plain clothes, as Powell exited an apartment building on the Upper East Side. Powell died instantly, and as a crowd gathered and police sent in scores of reinforcements, tensions mounted. What followed was a week of sustained protests across Harlem and Bed-Stuy, as hundreds gathered daily to demand that the police and the mayor’s office hold Gilligan accountable, all the while suspecting — correctly, it turned out — that they would not. Civil rights organizations attempted to channel the fury of the crowds into nonviolent protest. The day of Powell’s funeral, CORE transformed a previously scheduled event — a rally demanding federal action in response to the disappearance of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman in Mississippi — into a protest demanding justice for Powell. Yet this event, like others, turned riotous as police responded to crowds with a toxic mix of aggression and panic, compounding the initial incident of police brutality with manifold others, while calling up the now infamous images of southern law and order. As one leaflet that circulated during CORE’s July 18 protest put it, “we don’t have to go to Mississippi because Mississippi is here in New York.” After six days, police reported nearly 500 arrests, millions of dollars in property damage, and twenty-some injured officers. They failed to report the numbers of civilian casualties.

These events profoundly shook activists’ faith in nonviolent direct action. “What was the point,” Brian Purnell asks, summarizing the dilemma that groups like Brooklyn CORE found themselves in, “of using nonviolent, direct-action protest to win access to jobs, housing, and quality public education if power brokers in government and unions turned a blind eye and a deaf ear or blamed black people’s culture and behavior for causing the very social and economic conditions civil rights activists sought to change?” What was the point when law enforcement or deputized white citizens could still kill Black citizens with impunity? What could civil disobedience really do, in this context? It seemed neither enough to force the government to safeguard Black life nor to spur the kind of thoroughgoing transformation that would be required to secure Black liberation. The dramatic violence produced by the tactics of disruption and disclosure had not been sufficient to force a full ethical and political reckoning, and the deadly violence produced by white supremacy showed no signs of abating. In myriad ways, the techniques of disavowal helped the white public sever the connections between New York City and Mississippi while contributing to a growing political backlash against the forms of dissent that targeted both. The time for civil rights disobedience seemed to be coming to an end.

The shift from civil rights to Black Power, from integration to self-determination, and from civil disobedience to self-defense is often marked with the turn to colonialism as the interpretive frame for naming white supremacy in the United States. In their 1967 book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, Kwamé Ture (Stokely Carmichael) and Charles Hamilton famously argued that “black people in this country form a colony, and it is not in the interest of the colonial power to liberate them.” While acknowledging that the metaphor was an imperfect one — there is no distant metropole; the mode of capitalist extraction is focused on labor, not raw materials; Black Americans are citizens with formal legal rights — for Ture and Hamilton, as for a growing number of Black activists in the mid- to late-1960s, the idea of internal colonialism still captured the essentially oppressive and exploitative relations that defined the American racial order. Whatever the imperfections of the metaphor, the power of the “internal colony” was in the way it renewed connections to decolonial projects across the globe — animating a new imaginative geography that linked the U.S. to Cuba, China, Vietnam, and Palestine, and suggesting alternative means of struggle. In this context, Black Power activists contended that nonviolence was too easily co-opted as a technique of colonial management: white citizens and political powerholders demanded Black nonviolence without thinking twice about wielding violent repression themselves; they demanded civility while acceding to only the most token reforms; and they stood ready to criminalize, punish, and incarcerate activists who refused this bargain. While the praxis of Black Power did not necessarily mean — to all who cultivated it — armed rebellion or guerilla warfare, Ture and Hamilton were clear about the exhausted potential of dramatic displays of nonviolent protest. White Americans had proven themselves, time and again, incapable “of the shame which might become a revolutionary emotion.” Consequently, nonviolence would only propagate the idea that there was little risk to maintaining a racist order: “Those of us who advocate Black Power are quite clear in our minds that a ‘non-violent’ approach to civil rights is an approach black people cannot afford and a luxury white people do not deserve. It is crystal clear to us—and it must become so with the white society—that there can be no social order without social justice.” In fighting for social justice, there must be a credible threat to “fight back.”

Indeed, by the middle of the decade, the mainstream, public discourse around civil disobedience was already working to subsume Black struggle into a narrative of American exceptionalism, as events like the March on Washington and the Birmingham campaign became part of the techniques of disavowal—a way to discipline activists who appeared to defy the given script for properly civil protest. The dismantling of the formal, legal architecture of Jim Crow — which was only a part of what activists were fighting for — was made to stand in for the whole of transformation, as liberal politicians declared victory and demanded an end to the unrest, lecturing Black Americans not to appear ungrateful for what they had been given. In this conjuncture, Ture and Hamilton may have been right that civil disobedience had become too enmeshed in efforts to resist transformation to remain (in that moment) a meaningful practice of fighting for it. But it is important for us, as readers nearly sixty years removed, to recognize the distinction between the successful co-optation of civil disobedience and its lived histories. Civil rights disobedience was borne of the connections between anticolonial struggles across the world, and it was never about quiescence or preserving the social order.


Seeing Like an Activist

Extending out of a longer history of imaginative transit within and across a world of anticolonial movements, the activists of the short civil rights movement constructed a vibrant practice of civil disobedience as a means of decolonizing America’s white democracy. The United States shared with all colonial contexts a system of rule based on the political disempowerment, economic exploitation, and ritual degradation of a racialized population — a system held in place by fear and violence. Fear and violence acculturated the oppressed into fatalism and acquiescence; fear and violence acculturated the oppressors into blindness, denial, and false superiority. But the American settler colony was also a specific context, presenting particular problems, in that the work of decolonization would have to transform white citizens rather than expel them. They, too, as a significant numerical majority, needed to be a part of an emancipatory future; but they could not contribute to building that future unless they allowed themselves to be transformed in the process.

The enactment of civil disobedience, in its courageous defiance, in its displays of solidarity, and in its symbolic and material power, offered a means of self-emancipation — a way of remaking the colonized self in the very spaces that most viscerally defined the problem of colonization: spaces of incarceration and confinement, spaces of racial terror and control, spaces of routine humiliation and deference. At the same time, civil disobedience would do its decolonizing work outwardly, on white structures, relations, and persons: intervening in practices of domination, disrupting daily functioning, arresting public attention, and disclosing the otherwise ignored realities of systemic, violent, racial rule, so that white citizens were forced to confront their complicity. Given white psychic and material investments in hierarchy, activists knew that any form of defiance would meet with resistance, and likely violent resistance. Yet, guided by the example of nonviolence as a tool of anticolonial liberation abroad, civil disobedience offered a means of using the inevitability of this violence against itself. The provocation of civil disobedience, met with a disproportionate and brutal reaction, would reveal white rule to itself — shattering the veneer of democratic legitimacy and moral integrity that stabilized the political life of the white state.

Civil rights activists devised their plans and enacted their strategies with aspirations of emancipation and transformation, animated by the possibility that collective action could change the world. Tellingly, they did not frame civil disobedience as a problem of justification: Under what conditions is it legitimate for democratic citizens to break the law in protest? The framework of justification presumes that a legitimate, defensible order already exists where one does not; it imagines dissenters as citizens who enjoy recognition as equal members. They are speakers and actors whose words and deeds are legible, audible, and cognizable within the idioms and frames of the system as it exists. Their disobedience critiques injustice, and in so doing, stabilizes an already extant (though imperfect) liberal democracy. Approaching the problem of civil disobedience in this manner, therefore, aids in the discursive work that secures white supremacy by obscuring it behind the language and logics of a democracy. In contrast, civil rights activists saw that a legitimate, democratic order had yet to be built, and envisioned their activism as the bridge leading from the world they inhabited to the one they desired. As inhabitants of a system of racial hierarchy, they lacked status as equal members; their action had to do the work of constructing a new set of social relations, free from domination. “I think when we talk about growing up in a better world, a new world,” one SNCC activist told Howard Zinn, “we mean changing the world to a different place.”

Building this world was not only about the systems of control and domination that structured the United States but also about contesting the global order of white supremacy by targeting its local (but linked) instantiations. Seeing civil disobedience like a white state — or, perhaps more accurately, like a white democracy — severs the work of activism in the United States from contexts that political theorists and political scientists alike categorize separately: authoritarian regimes, colonial states, and other “non-democracies.” As we have seen, this not only bolsters an account of racial injustice in the United States as a limited, aberrational problem readily fixable within constitutional democracy’s existing normative and legal resources; it also fractures the imaginative geographies constructed by activists in transit, denying that there is anything to be learned from the more expansive ways activists envisioned the problem and its place in the world. As Loubna El Amine has recently argued, this bifurcated world — liberal democracies, versus everywhere else — refuses “the idealism of a solidarity that extends beyond the borders of one country, to encompass, if only indirectly, other peoples with similar fights.” In other words, it not only distorts interpretations of the activists of the past and the ties of solidarity they constructed; it also constricts present-day capacities for discerning and participating in such solidaristic efforts in the contemporary moment. As with the ties between Jim Crow and colonialism, the links activists forge between Occupy Wall Street and Tahrir Square, or between Indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter in Ferguson, and the fight for a free Palestine, are not just incidental facts about these struggles, irrelevant to the normative interpretation of activism across disconnected contexts. Approaching protest as a matter of justification often fails to ask what activists are doing when they connect their own fights to those of others across the world — what kind of political theories and analyses they are bringing to bear on the world, and what kinds of worlds they are bringing into being through such imaginative transit.

As an alternative practice of political theorizing, seeing like an activist does not mean uncritically adopting the frameworks, perspectives, or claims of activists as our own. Instead, it encourages a more capacious understanding of the creative work of theorizing — attending to the ways that the perceptual and interpretive categories of political life are themselves produced in action and in specific material contexts, exploring the connections between the practices of academic theorizing and the discursive work of maintaining (or challenging) structures of domination, and interrogating the uncritical performances of power that categorize some as producers of knowledge and others as its objects — or its raw materials. “Social movements generate new knowledge, new theories, new questions,” as Robin D. G. Kelley has eloquently observed. “The most radical ideas often grow out of a concrete intellectual engagement with the problems of aggrieved populations confronting systems of oppression.” This is fundamentally an imaginative, contentious, and collaborative practice of political theorizing—one that can enliven and challenge academic practices of thinking as much as our own sense of the possible. As Kelley continues: “We must remember that the conditions and the very existence of social movements enable participants to imagine something different, to realize that things need not always be this way.”

This shifted perspective likewise reveals the limitations that troubled activists’ visions. In imagining the dramatic, disclosive, and disruptive work of civil disobedience as a means of combatting white ignorance and eliciting white transformation, civil rights activists underestimated the depth of white ideological identification with, and material investment in, their own supremacy. The early, heady successes of civil rights disobedience in staging explosive confrontations were aided by the very discursive techniques that would frustrate their potential: the construction of the South as a separate, exceptional space; the idealized vision of nonviolent activism as bound by existing norms of civility; the constriction of vision that rendered a demand for democratic decolonization as a plea for constitutional reform. Seeing civil disobedience like activists helps us take account of the shortcomings of the frameworks they devised and exposes the enormity of the unfinished work left in the movement’s wake. As Juliet Hooker has argued, “the failure of the victories gained by the civil rights movement to eliminate structural disparities in wealth and the criminal justice system raise important questions about the limited ability of liberal democracy to truly address racial justice.” Given those failures, demanding repeated, heroic displays of nonviolent suffering from Black activists perpetrates a double harm: transforming a history of defiant resistance into a demand for peaceful acquiescence and well-mannered petitioning, while requiring that “those who have already suffered the lion’s share of the losses inflicted by racism” continue to suffer still more, as the price for a white moral awakening that may never materialize. One path out of this impasse, Hooker suggests, is to reconstruct the struggles of the past in different terms, not to provide a new model that can be imposed on the present, but to allow us to think more expansively about defiant protest as a practice of liberation — one that appears dangerous or uncivil precisely in the moment when it challenges, rather than reaffirms, liberal democracy’s bounds.


The Past in the Present

Faced with racial politics in the United States in the decade of Black Lives Matter — amidst successive waves of protest spurred by the deaths of a series of unarmed Black men, women, and children at the hands of police officers and deputized white citizens “standing their ground” — we might be forgiven for giving into the unsettling sensation that history is repeating itself. In the days, weeks, and months following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, protestors took to the streets insisting that “Black Lives Matter” — and stirring a renewed national debate about race, police brutality, and the persistence of the kinds of inequalities (political, social, economic) the civil rights movement of the 1960s aimed to transform. As protestors in Ferguson clashed with heavily armed police forces, the optics of the struggle evoked a past that was never fully or safely past. Iconic scenes from the civil rights movement appeared anew in Ferguson — the spectacle of a mostly white police force, armed to the teeth, facing off against Black protestors demanding redress for yet another death; the police dogs used as crowd control. Ferguson was Birmingham in 1963, Ferguson was Harlem in 1964, Ferguson was Watts in 1965. In June 2020, it was happening again, after a video showing Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, kneel for eight full minutes on the neck of a Black man, George Floyd, while he pleaded, begged for air, and called out for his deceased mother. Amid a gathering crowd screaming for Chauvin to stop, Floyd died, repeating the last words of Eric Garner, another Black man killed by police six years earlier: “I can’t breathe.” When mass protests erupted in Minneapolis and subsequently in cities and towns across the entire country, the familiar comparisons returned: it was 1964, 1965, or 1968 again. The past was back; the past had never gone away.

Such comparisons capture a powerful sense of temporal doubling — the sinking suspicion that the 1960s are happening again and again, and that reports of Jim Crow’s death have been greatly exaggerated. A multitude of contemporary realities seem to speak to an America stalled in time, from intransigent residential and educational segregation, to persistent gaps in income and wealth between Black and white Americans, to the police brutality and disregard for Black life on evidence in cities and towns across the country. But for all the connections between the past and the present, the idea of repetition — of being exactly where we were, and thus of seeing exactly the same protests we have seen — can be politically dangerous. Ironically, it seems to suggest both an ahistorical permanence to the structures of racial domination (they never change) while also counseling a return to civil rights protest as the sure solution (it is always enough). Indeed, when protests in Ferguson escalated into violence in the fall of 2014, Eric Holder — then U.S. attorney general — was not the first to draw on the shared civil rights past to counsel nonviolence: “I would remind demonstrators of our history that . . . the way in which we have made progress in this country is when we have seen peaceful, nonviolent demonstrators that has led to the change that has been the most long lasting and the most pervasive.” The same script played out in 2020, as political figures across party lines called on protestors to live up to the “spirit” and the “legacy” of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks.What political visions — indeed, what futures — are ruled out by insisting, over and over again, that today’s activists perform an endless repetition of civil rights protest — particularly its most civil-ized, domestic-ated version? The activists and organizers of the contemporary Movement for Black Lives are not replicators of a civil rights template; they work both within and against a lineage of Black struggle. They live and act in tension with it. As Charlene Carruthers, national director of the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), explains: “Activists love and hate the civil rights movement and its best-known strategies. We groan at the idea of ‘another march’ but will call for mass mobilizations in the aftermath of the killing of one of our own. . . . We love and hate to dig into histories. As Black people, there’s so much to love and hate from our histories. Regardless, they are ours. Acknowledging and wrestling with all they entail not only advances our knowledge; they also give us the juice we need to secure our collective liberation.” Carruthers calls for a more expansive history — multiplying the stories told about a Black radical past, and the critical perspectives those stories take — to ground, inform, and inspire organizing and activist strategies today.

But she also points to the ways in which the lessons of this history must be “reimagined,” not just “revived,” in order to speak to the specificity of the present context. “Black people are living under the heels of a neoliberal state, a global crisis of capitalism, and further entrenchment of anti-Blackness through policy and culture alike,” Carruthers writes. The structure of today’s racial regime is the product of the past, not a frozen replica of it. “It is a time of unprecedented levels of state surveillance, unequal and questionable definitions of terrorism, and an obscene expansion of the military-industrial context” — conditions that have arisen since the 1960s, and which were in some ways constructed to demobilize and contain the multitude of uprisings against racism, capitalism, and colonialism that arose during the decade. The New Deal order, with its limited but real social welfare provisions, has been thoroughly racialized and hollowed out — associated with “handouts” for undeserving minoritized populations to justify extreme retrenchment. Rampant privatization has come hand in hand with the construction of an intensified carceral state: expanded surveillance, militarized policing, and mass incarceration, overwhelmingly targeting impoverished and racialized communities. At the same time, the existence of a real Black political elite in cities across the country speaks to the uniqueness of a post-civil rights racial order, in which high-profile, individualized Black achievement masks pervasive, structural disparities. “When a Black mayor, governing a largely Black city, aids in the mobilization of a military unit led by a Black woman to suppress a Black rebellion,” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor observes, “we are in a new period of the Black freedom struggle.”

The decolonizing praxis of the civil rights movement responded, imaginatively and imperfectly, to the structural realities of mid-twentieth-century white supremacy as activists saw them. The current moment demands no less: an activist praxis that assesses, reveals, and confronts the present. In the spirit of not just reviving but also actively reimagining the bounds of the tradition, the activists that make up the diverse coalition within the Movement for Black Lives have refused the bargain that earlier activists like King and Farmer made when they disavowed rowdy Black “spectators” or groups whose actions fell outside the established frame for disciplined nonviolence. Like their civil rights predecessors, today’s activists have “chosen the tactic of disruption,” as Patrice Khan-Cullors, co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter, put it. But they have also chosen “the tactic of challenging respectability” by legitimizing expressions of Black rage and pain, by rejecting facile references to civil rights icons of the past, and by centering those who had been pushed to the margins of earlier freedom struggles by virtue of class, gender, sexuality, or criminal history. They refuse the demand for perfect performances of nonviolence, for the production of “respectable” Black victims, as the price of white empathy or structural redress. Ironically, then, when commentators call out the Movement for Black Lives for failing the test of civil rights civility, they are not just misconstruing the legacies of civil rights disobedience. They are also dismissing the very thing that makes the contemporary movement powerful, creative, and of its time.

The ultimate point of seeing like an activist is not, then, to simply replace one reading of civil rights disobedience (fidelity to law, or constitutional patriotism) with another (decolonizing praxis). Rather, it is to orient us toward activists as political theorists, engaged in the creative work of analyzing and acting within the present on its own terms — working in transit and in solidarity with activists across the boundaries of our existing political categories, and devising the forms of action that promise to build a new world out of the wreckage of this one.


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