Political conventions have always attracted political protests, and the history of black organizers protesting at major party conventions stretches back decades. Mass protests led by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, then-Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader and current Representative John Lewis, and activist Fannie Lou Hamer at the 1964 Democratic Convention helped bring the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into existence and hasten the exit of white conservatives from the Democratic Party. The 1968 Democratic Convention was upended by mass protests and riots from a collection of counterculture and civil rights groups, including anti-war demonstrators, black nationalists, and the nonviolent remnants of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. The surveillance, protests, and a political plot at this convention captured the fraught racial climate of the United States in the wake of King’s death and the ensuing riots.
With the 2016 Democratic and Republican conventions approaching, America’s mood is perhaps not quite as tense as it was after the anti-black violence of the 1964 Freedom Summer or the fear and destruction of the 1968 King riots. But it is still characterized in part by anger from black activists. Donald Trump’s campaign has fomented protests from black organizers across the country, and his racist posturing has led to renewed calls for protests against the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Black Lives Matter, a movement that dominated headlines last year in protests against police violence, has always been political, but the conventions provide much more direct avenue to electoral politics. Black activism could be a major force in shaping or disrupting the agendas of both parties.