Young civil rights heroes of the '60s should be a model for today's protesters

The cartoon that accompanies this column is a deliberate but good-humored provocation meant to lure student activists into a discussion of what is important and not important, what is central and what is peripheral to their cause.

Let me first stipulate that I believe racism remains a deeply rooted problem in our country, even if its expression now comes more frequently from ignorance than from overt hatred. Women remain targets of sexual assault and gender bias. Micro-aggressions, too, are a pervasive phenomenon that can wear at the spirit of even the most talented and motivated young person who comes from a disadvantaged background. Those stipulations will disappoint folks who saw my cartoon and thought, "That liberal fool has finally come to his senses!" No, my view of the world has not suddenly flipped.


My view of the world, though, makes me think that the movement that is rising across the country on college campuses has become so important that it deserves a critique from an ally. My message to the new student activists is simple: The cause in which you are engaged is bigger than you are. The arc of history bends toward justice only if people keep pushing it in that direction, but people who cannot be taken seriously undermine that effort.

Here is one small example of what I mean. Recently, during a student gathering at the University of Southern California, a young white man was speaking and used the word "guys" to refer to the people in the room, as in "you guys ought to think about this" or "you guys don't understand." An angry young woman interrupted him, declaring that his use of the word "guys" was an affront and a negation of all the females in the room.


Really? Am I not right in thinking that 99 percent of young American women use "guys" in a gender-neutral way? If a female student were urging her female friends to join in a protest, she would very likely say, "Hey guys, let's skip class and go to the quad!" Some micro-aggressions are not at all small, but some are relatively minor. And, as in this case, a few seem to be fabricated so that the allegedly offended person can get the upper hand in a debate and, perhaps, demonstrate she is superior to anyone who has not adopted the proper lingo.

There was an even more alarming incident on the University of Missouri campus when a line of students, having claimed a "safe space" for their protest in the center of campus, intimidated a student news photographer who was on the scene to cover the story. An extended video of the confrontation showed the young Asian-American photographer remaining impressively cool as he asserted his First Amendment rights even as the protesters pushed against him, berated him and blatantly used the language of personal safety as a tool of aggression.

Those students had the excuse of being young and naive. Not so the faculty member who was with them -- a communications teacher, of all things, who had urged the media to cover the protest and then, on camera, called for "muscle" to help her drive newspeople away.

Incidents like these can make protesters look ridiculous, as did the spectacle at Yale where a student was caught on video profanely shouting down a faculty member who was attempting to engage in a reasoned discussion about Halloween costumes. Sorry, folks, but political activism isn't a form of therapy and self-actualization. It isn't a place to prove how cool you are. Demanding that every obtuse college official be fired is not much of a tactic. Treating every slight and offense as a catastrophe betrays a lack of proportion.

Today's student protesters would do well to emulate the young civil rights activists of the early 1960s. These were students who sat down at segregated lunch counters and took severe abuse with stoic, passive resistance. These were students who went into the Deep South to register people to vote who had been denied their rights because of their skin color. These were the young Freedom Riders who boarded buses and went on the road to challenge the racist system that kept black citizens from having the same access to bus stations, drinking fountains, public bathrooms, hotels, movie theaters, restaurants, schools and universities as white citizens.

These students were not seeking safe spaces for themselves. To the contrary, they were intentionally putting themselves in danger. Many were beaten by racist mobs. Many more were jailed. Some were murdered. But their disciplined, nonviolent activism shamed and inspired a nation and went a long way toward toppling an oppressive, racist system that had been entrenched for centuries.

The times and circumstances are now significantly different, of course. Still, today's young activists would do well to develop that same kind of discipline and focus. They need to know that others have been in their place before and accomplished great things because they were trained in the practices of nonviolence and were ready to put the common cause ahead of themselves.

Sure, it is presumptuous of me to lecture. I'm a very privileged, middle-aged white male whose greatest privilege is having a platform in a major American newspaper where I can spout off day after day. But that doesn't mean what I say is not worth thinking about.


Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go to see more of his work.