TAMU-CC Professor Compares Current Protests to Historic Movements

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – The waves of protests and rallies related to the Black Lives Matter movement and police misconduct are making history, even when compared to dramatic and widespread protests of the past.

“We are living through a historic moment for protest – in recent weeks, there have been Black Lives Matter protests in over 3,500 cities and towns around the world,” said Dr. Beth Robinson, Assistant Professor of History at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. “This comes on the heels of hundreds of labor strikes related to COVID-19, and not far off from the March for Our Lives high school walk-outs, the Women’s March, Standing Rock, Occupy Wall Street, and several others.”

Robinson said these protest waves have been massive, including millions of Americans – many of whom might not consider themselves “activists” and who would not have predicted that they would ever go to a “protest.”

“We are witnessing a decade of protest not unlike the 1930s or the 1960s – this is a moment in which protest is increasingly seen as a normal and necessary part of our political culture,” said Robinson, who also is co-coordinator of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at the Island University.

Robinson taught a course on social movements during the Spring 2020 semester at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

“Many of the students who took my spring course on social movements will become high school history teachers,” Robinson said. Looking ahead to their careers as teachers, they are enthusiastic about incorporating information about important activities throughout recent history, such as strikes, sit-ins, marches, occupations, and other struggles to improve lives and communities, into their teaching, Robinson said.

“Some students are already passionate activists for social, racial, and economic justice, such as Chloe Torres, the winner of the 2020 Patrick J. Carroll History Student Engagement Award,” Robinson said.

The award is given annually to the student who best typifies the values of intellectual, social, and civic engagement that Dr. Carroll demonstrated over his long professional career at TAMU-CC. Carroll was a longtime professor of history, joining the Island University in 1976 and retiring in 2014.

“Chloe’s engagement in all three of these areas was exemplary, but her important work as an organizer for a number of social justice groups and causes on campus and in the community is especially noteworthy,” said the announcement of her award.

Torres is a junior at TAMU-CC, majoring in history.

“Receiving the award was an exciting and humbling experience,” Torres said. “I started organizing in my community about four years ago and the work was rewarding in and of itself. I never considered the work I had done would have been acknowledged, let alone celebrated by the University. I wish I could share the award with those who have mentored me along the years, including many professors at the University. It was their wisdom and encouragement that propelled me to keep going, even though it seemed like the whole world was against social justice.”

Torres’ career plans are to obtain a doctoral degree in history, with an emphasis on the history of carceral politics.

“I want to use my education and organizing experience so that I may travel around the country (and hopefully to Latin America as I have a minor in Spanish) and hold workshops with at-risk, incarcerated, or formerly incarcerated youth to give them a space where they can heal and learn skills that not only help them re-integrate into their communities but to help other children in their communities with similar life circumstances,” Torres said.

Robinson said it is important that the next generation of students understand the history, significance, and impact of social movements.

“A ‘protest’ is just an attempt to change the world around you – it doesn’t always look like people marching with signs,” Robinson said. “Protest also typically goes alongside voting, not in its place – protesting has very often been how people make the politicians they voted in actually do what they want them to do.”

Robinson said that throughout U.S. history, protest has been the primary method of change available to the majority of Americans.

“Not only have women, racial and ethnic minorities, youth, formerly incarcerated people, and others been explicitly banned from voting, but even today, not every American has an equal ability to, say, donate money to a political campaign,” she said. “If you have your senators’ cell phone numbers, you probably don’t need to protest to get their attention!”

History is full of this kind of political disruption, Robinson said.

“The American Revolution and the U.S. Civil War both started as protest movements,” she said. “Many of our freedoms, whether women’s right to vote, marriage equality, desegregation, or Social Security and minimum wage have all required intense protest.”

Robinson said change usually only comes after a concentrated and sustained effort involving multiple protests or rallies.

“In general, an individual protest or rally is unlikely to make change,” she said. “What we call the ‘Civil Rights Movement’ was thousands and thousands of protests over the course of a few decades, in nearly every city in the U.S. That movement did, ultimately, overturn hundreds of laws and policies, but not immediately.”

The people of Corpus Christi have been active participants in using social movements as a tool to help make change. 

“The Coastal Bend has a rich history of protest and activism – campaigns against housing and education discrimination; strikes by dockworkers, telephone workers, farm workers, sanitation workers, and others; and a host of student walk-outs,” Robinson said. “That two major, national civil rights organizations – LULAC and the American GI Forum – both started in Corpus Christi tells us something about the history of inequality in this region and people’s desire to do something about it.”

While protests and counter protests may make it seem like change may be a long way off, the current movements are very similar to movements of the past that also initially were not widely accepted.

“The Civil Rights Movement, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. specifically, were incredibly unpopular in the U.S. in the 1960s,” Robinson said. “Likewise, women pushing for the right to vote in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were widely ridiculed. Protest movements, even those that we celebrate after the fact, are rarely beloved in the moment – because they are deliberately disruptive, and they make people uncomfortable. This is worth considering when we hear modern protesters presented as troublemakers.”