Minnijean Brown Trickey wanted to make one thing clear.
She and the eight other members of the Little Rock Nine weren’t just accused of having been paid to integrate Central High School back in 1957. It was deeper, more insidious than that. They were called communists. They were accused of being secret Russians who had been trained to disrupt the South’s preferred way of life.
“It’s disappointing. You just feel accused and ashamed,” she told me, letting out a deep-throated sigh. “Shame is a big deal in this ― making people feel ashamed and making them feel that they’re doing the wrong thing when they speak out or participate in activism.
“This is the United States. We don’t like desegregation. We like segregation. We like not to affirm young people’s sense of determination.”
The accusations lobbed at 16-year-old Trickey and her peers remind her of what’s now happening to the survivors of a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Those teens, who lost 17 of their peers and teachers, have been rallying for stricter gun laws since the Feb. 14 shooting. During the students’ crusade to stop mass shootings, conspiracy-minded right-wingers have accused the students of being paid “crisis actors,” FBI sympathizers and operatives for left-wing billionaires like George Soros.
“We like to keep our kids infantilized and will do anything to make that possible,” she said. “Once you say they can’t think of this themselves, you got to add on evidence that somehow they’re being persuaded by somebody else. It’s a serious game that justifies violence, brutality and not responding. It’s a very powerful form of delegitimizing.”
Dissatisfied young people, Trickey explained, are a threat to a bad status quo.
“Young people don’t have mortgages. They don’t have car notes, and they can be a force to create change, so quickly we gotta get them shot down because they don’t have anything to lose.”
The “paid agitator” smear tends to show up throughout American history during moments of social reform. It dates back at least to Reconstruction. Formerly enslaved Africans who testified about their experiences in front of Congress were accused of lying and being paid to do so. But, in reality, the Republicans in Congress were just paying for their travel expenses since many formerly enslaved folks couldn’t afford to travel to Washington.
Accusing people lobbying for civil rights of being paid agitators has long been a tactic “used by white segregationists as a way to dismiss the legitimacy of African American claims to full equality,” according to Kevin Kruse, a historian who briefly dissected this phenomenon in a viral tweet.
“During the Little Rock school desegregation case, segregationists spread rumors that the nine high school students who had integrated Central High had been paid. Or, alternatively, that they had been imported from outside the region,” Kruse told HuffPost. “And those reflected a common theme in segregationist press in this period that anyone clamoring for full civil rights in the South must be themselves an ‘outside agitator’ or had been influenced by one.”
Alabama Gov. John Patterson claimed at the time that “a handful of race agitators” were sent to the state to “stir up racial trouble and strife.” He also claimed that protesters capitalized “upon racial factors for private gain.” Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett even claimed to have proof that black organizers of a voter march were paid.
Elizabeth Eckford, another member of the Little Rock Nine, was accused of being paid as she walked through a mob of violent white segregationists, according to a 1957 article in The Madison County Record:
“Nigger, go back to Africa!”
“Let her go, she’s being paid for it.”
Martin Luther King Jr. was accused of income tax fraud in February 1960 after a state audit claimed he didn’t report income he’d received from the the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He was later acquitted.
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the three civil rights activists who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964 were also accused of being paid for their civil rights work. A 1967 column from The New York Times News Service accused two Black Panthers ― H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael, both of whom were chairmans of SNCC ― of being on the U.S. Senate payroll.
Such claims have become the hallmark of every national tragedy in recent years. Grieving parents standing outside of Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 small children and six adults were slaughtered in 2012, were deemed “actors.” The same was said of those at the scene of a mass shooting in an Aurora, Colorado., and at the Boston Marathon bombing. Protesters against police violence in Ferguson and Baltimore have often been accused of being paid actors on the Soros payroll.
While a lot of the accusations are malicious, these claims also show a general lack of understanding of how movements are resourced. People aren’t typically paid to act in organic social movements, but movements do require resources to sustain ― especially when the bulk of organizers hail from low-income communities, said Tristan Wilkerson, the acting executive director of Philander Smith College’s Social Justice Institute. But most of the financial backing comes from small donors ― not billionaires like Soros.
“Those folks aren’t being paid to advance that agenda. Those are folks who are deeply affected ― and I think it’s disgusting to make those accusations,” Wilkerson said. “When folks are deeply disaffected, you’re motivated.”
By calling into question the sincerity of the movement, segregationists were able to undermine its moral authority. The same applies today.
Kenneth Janken, a professor in UNC’s African, African American and Diaspora Studies Department, noted that the attacks on the Parkland students are designed to reinforce the disbelief that young people can make history. Another reason prominent conservatives attack protesters, per Janken, is that they know they’re in the wrong. He compared the bombastic political pushback to protests ― in Parkland, Baltimore, Ferguson and beyond ― to former Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s infamous 1963 inaugural speech where he proclaimed: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”
“He knew that he was on the losing end. He knew that federal enforcement was going to force the end of legal segregation. He knew he couldn’t win, yet to create a political advantage for himself, he went on rants like that,” Janken said.
“They’re on the losing side ― these demagogues are on the losing side and this is a gambit to try and shore up their position,” he said.