Could Greenpeace Exist Without the Civil Rights Movement?
by Molly Dorozenski
February 23, 2018
If you’re happy to have the right to gather, organize, and strategize, thank the NAACP for their landmark 1958 victory.
No change in the world ever happened without people gathering together, informally, in collectives, in coalitions, with friends and neighbors, and as communities and families. Our collective power comes from working together; united we can solve the impossible problems that we can’t solve alone.
The freedom to assemble is closely linked to freedom of speech, and both rights are protected by the First Amendment. But people of color have long been excluded from the protection the Constitution offers. For example, slave codes prevented Black people from assembling together for church, or other communal activities. Today, ongoing attacks on these First Amendment rights continue to fall disproportionately on people of color, such as Indigenous activists fighting for the right to sovereignty near Standing Rock.
As we celebrate Black History Month, it’s worth looking back at the moment when freedom of association was first recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court as a protected First Amendment right and applied to the states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment This right wasn’t recognized by the Court until the civil rights era, and it illustrates just how connected the right to assembly is to resistance against massive power imbalances in our country.
NAACP v. Alabama, the first recognition of our freedom of assembly
In 1955, the Montgomery bus boycott became a thirteen-month-long non-violent protest sparked by Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a public bus. Parks, secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, sparked one of the most iconic and effective campaigns in history. In 1956, the state’s Attorney General (AG) sued the NAACP seeking to prevent the organization from doing business.
At the lower court, the AG requested the NAACP turn over its membership lists. The court ordered the civil rights organization to comply, directing it to disclose the names and addresses of Alabama NAACP members to the government. The NAACP refused to disclose its membership information, leaving the group in contempt of court.
In ruling for the NAACP, the United States Supreme Court recognized, for the first time, the right to freedom of assembly, and ruled the membership lists did not need to be turned over. Writing that revealing their identities could expose NAACP members to “economic reprisal, loss of employment, threat of physical coercion, and other manifestations of public hostility.” The Court further wrote that the disclosure could “induce members to withdraw from the Association and dissuade others from joining it because of fear of exposure.”
The United States Supreme Court noted its prior decisions establishing the connection between freedom of speech and assembly, making a clear statement that any state action affecting the right to associate– like making a person’s membership public– infringes on liberty. The case demonstrates that when we band together, we increase our ability to make change and disrupt the coercive power that government and corporations maintain over people.
How restricting the right to protest hits people of color first
The freedom of assembly is under attack by corporations right now. Greenpeace is defending a $900 million lawsuit filed by Energy Transfers Partners (ETP) the corporation behind the Dakota Access Pipeline. While ETP’s suit is directed at Greenpeace (and other environmental organizations), it seeks to undermine solidarity with Indigenous peoples fight to protect their land, water, way of life, and sovereignty. The lawsuit could have the chilling effect of making non-Indigenous people afraid to work with Indigenous partners for fear of reprisal.
We also see these attacks on solidarity and the freedom to associate playing out in new anti-protest bills being proposed across the country. More than 50 bills have been proposed since Trump was elected and in last year’s legislative session, eight anti-protest bills made it into law. The two groups that are most impacted by these bills and laws are Indigenous activists fighting pipelines — many of these laws focus on disrupting “critical infrastructure” in pipeline states — and Black Lives Matter activists whose work to disrupt the racist and harmful status quo is seen as a massive threat. Some of these bills even go after people who lend support to protests — a clear message to allies and accomplices acting in solidarity with communities under struggle, that they too are at risk.
We must work together to dismantle the racist power structure these lawsuits and bills seek to uphold. We can’t protect the planet without the work of Indigenous communities who shook the world at Standing Rock. And we can’t build a new world with justice at its core without Black Lives Matter. At this moment in history, we don’t have the luxury of taking our constitutional rights for granted. Change has to start with each of us, as we take action by asking our governors not to sign these bills, and let corporations know we will continue to fight together for our shared vision of justice.
The important victories of Civil Rights Movement have been foundational to all the work happening in the broader progressive movement today, including landmark court rulings. As activists, we walk in the footsteps of Civil Rights activists on the same path towards justice.