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The Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and its Impact on the Occupy Wall Street Movement

Updated on January 15, 2012
Occupy Wall Street Series - Working Class/Bob Jagendorf
Occupy Wall Street Series - Working Class/Bob Jagendorf | Source

The Civil Rights movement will be forever remembered by the images of white policemen beating well-dressed, relatable African Americans and the African American non-violent response. The movement was successful largely because television coverage spread awareness of how African Americans were victims of oppression in the South. Had the protesters been violent, they probably would not have been perceived as victims and would not have received as much public sympathy as they did. The television coverage of the Civil Rights movement created an expectation for future protests, like the Occupy Wall Street movement, that media coverage of police brutality towards physically non-violent protesters would help rally public support for the movement’s cause. Like the protesters during the Civil Rights movement, the Occupy Wall Street protesters are also perceived as non-violent and relatable victims of police brutality.

Organizers of the Civil Rights movement, including Marking Luther King Jr, theorized that if viewers only saw dramatic, unjust, and brutal images towards African Americans, and never from African Americans towards whites, the public would sympathize with their cause (Roberts). Eventually, he assumed that the public would “demand federal intervention and legislation” (Roberts, 376).This strategy worked, and as Rodger Streitmatter wrote, “The only violence portrayed on film was by whites” (Streitmatter, 181).Not all of the protesters were non-violent, but the majority was; this made media coverage of African Americans behaving violently uncommon. Dr .King was aware of the importance these images had on the public. He even told a photojournalist to focus the attention on police brutality toward non-violent protestors. He said, “I’m not being cold-blooded about it, but it is much more important for you take a picture of us getting beaten up than for you to be another person joining in the fray” ( Roberts, 383). It is difficult to determine whether Dr. King’s comment affected the way the photojournalist covered the event, since the sheer number of people participating in the protest and the shocking response of the police toward the protesters made the event inherently newsworthy.In other words, the news media simply provided coverage because the events were newsworthy and weren’t necessarily aiming to help Dr. King achieve his goals.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is newsworthy for the same reasons as the Civil Rights movement was. The Occupy Wall Street website there are many references to the Civil Rights movement and the role the media played in gaining public support. Referring to the restaurant sit-ins during the Civil Rights movement, the Occupy Wall Street website says:

Social movements surprise and shock everyone when they burst into the public spotlight on the evening TV news and in newspaper headlines. Overnight, a previously unrecognized social problem becomes a social issue that everyone is talking about. It starts with a highly publicized, shocking incident, a ‘trigger event’, followed by a nonviolent action campaign that includes large rallies and dramatic civil disobedience. Soon these are repeated in local communities around the country. (Niel)

Like the organizers of the Civil Rights movement, the Occupy Wall Street protesters and organizers are fully aware that television coverage is the fastest way to make the public aware of their cause.

During the Civil Rights movement, it wasn’t that the protesters were non-violent because of the media, but the media helped to achieve the movement’s goals because the protesters were non-violent. As a response to the help the media coverage provided, the protesters began catering to the cameras.For example, the media coverage of the Birmingham protests consisted of some of the most powerful images for the movement.One photographer captured a “young woman as a stinging, high-pressure fusillade hit her in the back, knocked her purse from her hands, slammed her to the ground, and held her there as she screamed. He [the photographer] held the scene as a giant Negro man emerged from the spray to lift her with one arm and carry her to safety (Roberts, 317). The young woman did not do anything to provoke the police officers, she was portrayed as an unsuspecting, law abiding citizen. More importantly, she did not react violently toward the police officers. Had she gotten out a key or a pen from her purse and stabbed a police officer in revenge, and if that had been caught on film, viewers wouldn’t have perceived her as a victim. Instead, her non-violent response captured on television provoked a call for social justice. In other words, “cameras provided incontrovertible evidence of American unfairness, inhumanity, and brutality” (Roberts, 321).These images helped gather public support for the cause.

As a legacy of the Civil Rights movement, the Occupy Wall Street protesters expect to gain public support by using non-violence to gain public support.The Occupy Wall Street website it states:

By starkly revealing to the public that a social condition and powerholder policies blatantly violate widely held cherished social values, citizen self-interest, and the public trust, the trigger event instills a profound sense of moral outrage in the general populace. Consequently, the general population responds with great passion, demanding an explanation from the powerholders and ready to hear more information from the opposition. The trigger event is also a trumpet’s call to action for the new wave opposition groups around the country. (Niel)

In gaining media coverage, the organizers of the Occupy Wall Street movement are just as aware as Dr. King was about how important it is for viewers to perceive the protesters as victims. The Occupy Wall Street organizers are assuming that the general public will demand federal intervention, or as the website states, “the powerholders,” like it did during the Civil Rights movement.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is largely non-violent because the Civil Rights movement left a legacy that non-violence combined with media coverage would result in a successful protest.Knowing that the media will cover their protests, the Occupy Wall Street protesters have attended seminars and conferences about how to remain calm, and how to employ civil disobedience during police intervention (Non-Violence). The mention of public sympathy on their website implies that the protesters are aware of how the viewer’s perception of them will impact the outcome of their movement. Students at the University of California, Davis, set up a tent encampment to symbolize their discontent with the rising cost of tuition (Randewich). Shortly after, Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi asked for police assistance to remove the encampment. On November 19, campus police pepper sprayed protestors from the encampment who were peacefully obstructing a public walkway (Cherkis). They linked their arms and stayed seated as the police pepper sprayed them (Cherkis). The footage of the video aired on national and international news outlets. Stephan Jenkins, a columnist for the Huffington Post wrote, “It was the students of UCD who showed themselves to be the true tough guys on the scene, and by tough guys, I mean Rosa Parks, Gandhi-style tough guys— the kind who have the courage to wield the power of nonviolence” (Jenkins). The video spurred more university students at UC Davis and across the country to also set up encampments. The spread of the encampments illustrates growing sympathy toward the Occupy cause, which wouldn’t have been possible without the news media, and nowadays the Internet, spreading the video of the pepper sprayed students.

In providing images of the Civil Rights movement the media also provided images of the individual protestors. The media captured images of well dressed, clean, friendly-looking individuals, disproving the more negative ideas of African Americans many Americans had in mind. At the time, African Americans were thought of as dirty, lazy, and shabby (Roberts).In The Race Beat, Gene Roberts wrote:

The images of masses of well-dressed, determined, smiling Negroes taking to the streets to demonstrate bravely and nonviolently exploded several other myths: That marchers were not the Sambos many white southerners had thought they were. These were not the lazy, unkempt, compliant or complacent people they'd always read and heard about. Nor were they untamed, violent savages. And they were not outsiders, hotheads, pulling into the streets a rump group against the will of the more solid Negro citizens. (Roberts, 321)

The individuals shown on TV were not monsters, but human— and viewers at home could relate to them. The shabby, monstrous, vicious idea of an African American was replaced by images of struggling working class people fighting for their rights. During the Birmingham protests, a photographer captured an image of a policeman holding an African American man against the mouth of an attack dog. Again, the young man did not react violently. In a letter to the editor that appeared in the Washington Post on May 19, 1963, Ruth Hemphill from Maryland wrote,

The man being lunged at was not a criminal being tracked down to prevent his murdering other men; he was, and is, a man. If he can have a beast deliberately urged to lunge at him, then so can any man, woman or child in the United States. I don't wish to have beasts deliberately urged to lunge at me or my children and therefore I don't wish to have beasts lunging at the citizens of Birmingham or any other place. (Garrow, 168)

Hemphill related to the man as an innocent individual, and in finding a way to relate to him she started to sympathize with the movement’s cause.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has also made viewers rethink their conceptions, not about African Americans, but about protesters.The 1960’s and 1970’s left protesters closely associated with homeless, jobless, stinky, dirty, drug addicted hippies (Greenlee).But, many news clips of the Occupy Wall Street movement show images of well-dressed individuals, families and business owners. For example, on October 9, NBC aired footage of Occupy Wall Street protesters in lower Manhattan which showed the large range of demographics among the crowd. In the beginning of the video segment, there are several people with dreadlocks drumming while others dance (NBC). Then the video showed well-dressed people, ranging from young to old, calmly holding signs while marching in a large crowd. The crowd also consisted of young looking people with backpacks, and a woman marching with her child (NBC). According to a survey of New York protesters taken on October 5, 92.1 percent of the protesters had some level of college education, 50.4 percent of the protesters are employed full-time, and an additional 20.4 percent are employed part-time (Cordero-Guzman). The survey also illustrated that annual income among protesters varied from $20,000 to $150,000 (Cordero-Guzman). The protesters represent a vast demographic and viewers at home are bound to find a face in the crowd to whom they can relate. Just like the Civil Rights demonstrators related to their viewers through clothing, viewers of the Occupy Wall Street movement are relating to the Occupy protesters in the same way. Also like the Civil Rights demonstrators, the Occupy protesters are sending the message that they are not outsiders—they have identified themselves as 99% of the population. During an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher on October 21, Mr. Mahr said, “These people down there, they’re not the counterculture; they’re the culture” (Taintor).

It is too soon to determine whether the expectations that the Occupy Wall Street movement has assumed from the Civil Rights movement are beneficial. So far, media coverage of non-violent protesters does seem to be gaining public sympathy. Since the Occupy Wall Street movement website provides protest strategies from the Civil Rights movement the Occupy Wall Street protesters must have the expectation that those strategies will have fruitful results.

Works Cited

Cherkis, Jason. "UC Davis Police Pepper-Spray Seated Students In Occupy Dispute." Breaking News and Opinion on The Huffington Post., 19 Nov. 2011. Web. 28 Nov. 2011. <>.

Cordero-Guzman, Hector R. Mainstream Support for a Mainstream Movement. School of Public Affairs, Baruch College, 19 Oct. 2011. Web. 29 Nov. 2011. <>.

Garrow, David. Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979. Print.

Greenlee, Jim. "Hippie History." The Old Hippie Lost in Mississippi. Web. 29 Nov. 2011.

Jenkins, Stephan. "Stephan Jenkins: Occupy: The Real Tough Guys of UC Davis." Breaking News and Opinion on The Huffington Post., 21 Nov. 2011. Web. 28 Nov. 2011. <>.

NBC Evening News. NBC. New York, 9 Oct. 2011. Web. 28 Nov. 2011. <>.

Niel. "The Movement Action Plan: A Strategic Framework Describing The Eight Stages of Successful Social Movements." How To Occupy. Occupy Wall Street, 17 Nov. 2011. Web. 30 Nov. 2011. <>.

"Non-Violence." How To Occupy. Occupy Wall Street. Web. 30 Nov. 2011. <>.

Randewich, Noel. "Occupy Movement Inspires Rise in U.S. Campus Activism." Reuters, 25 Nov. 2011. Web. 27 Nov. 2011. <>.

Roberts, Gene, and Hank Klibanoff. The Race Beat: the Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation. New York: Knopf, 2006. Print.

Streitmatter, Rodger. Mightier than the Sword: How the News Media Have Shaped American History. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2008. Print.

Taintor, David. "Bill Maher To Republicans: Quit Calling Occupy Wall Street Protesters 'Hippies' (VIDEO)." Home | TPM LiveWire. TPM LiveWire, 22 Oct. 2011. Web. 29 Nov. 2011. <>.

Thomas, Liz. "Professor: Don't Stereotype Wall Street Protesters." The Rush Limbaugh Show. WIBC. Indiana, 19 Oct. 2011. 19 Oct. 2011. Web. 29 Nov. 2011. <>. Transcript.


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    • S Leretseh profile image

      S Leretseh 

      6 years ago

      "Civil Rights movement will be forever remembered by the images of white policemen beating well-dressed, relatable African Americans and the African American non-violent response."

      I disagree. The movement I think will be remembered as a ill-fated attempt by altruistic white people to "help" black people by giving them integration rights - into economic & political systems they [blacks] did not create. Then, once the magnanimous gift of integration rights was granted to blacks (rights granted from one people to another that was UNPRECEDENTED in human human history) ... blacks began looting and burning white people's businesses, and attacking them in the streets -- people who had done them no wrong whatsoever. Civil rights movement actually was the genesis of black racism in America...that has grown to epidemic proportions today. Google black male "knockdown game" against white people.

      As for occupy wallstreet.... that was paid for by Goerge Soros - king of currency manipulators. He wanted to create disruption to undermine the dollar...which he was hedging against by buying gold. The "kids" who were used by Soros ... when given an opportunity to tell the world why they were there, they couldn't do it. LOL

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I wish the movement had succeeded...

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I'm hoping Occupy continues to have an impact on our public discourse. Unfortunately, I think the media is trying to marginalize them because their message is so challenging. An Occupy protester isn't like a Tea Party protester, who wants to go back in time 70 years. Occupy is willing to challenge the economic status quo on which the United States currently rests.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 

      8 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Excellent analysis Nikki. I hope the OWS movement continues to have legs and grows. We need major changes in this country. The police brutalization against the occupiers was pitiful. I am hoping they will spring anew when the weather becomes warmer. Great article.


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