On June 10, 1963, Gov. George Wallace—a staunch segregationist—stood at the doors of the University of Alabama’s Foster Auditorium and tried to prevent two black students in his state, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from entering the building for class.
The civil rights movement had reached a fever pitch and race relations in America, much like now, were front and center.
In reaction to Wallace’s protest, U.S. President John F. Kennedy deployed 100 troops from the National Guard, the country’s reserve military force, to the University of Alabama. It was federal muscle that sent a clear message to Wallace and others in deep southern states: Integration would occur—by force, if necessary.
The standoff changed the course of history. Malone and Hood got to attend school that day and it was the National Guard, protecting America’s black citizens, that facilitated their entry.
Another U.S. president, Lyndon B. Johnson, would call in the National Guard to Alabama again two years later—also against Wallace’s wishes—to provide protection for protesters during their historic march from Selma to Montgomery.
Today, the National Guard plays an entirely different role when it comes to the new civil rights movement, commonly referred to as Black Lives Matter (BLM).
Governments deploying the National Guard to defend a city’s industry, and not its people, is becoming a pattern in the BLM movement—one that even North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory recognizes. Last week in Charlotte’s upscale uptown area, protesters peacefully demonstrated against the police-related shooting death of 43-year-old black man Keith Lamont Scott; but I saw the North Carolina National Guard standing in front of fancy hotels, office buildings, and restaurants. McCrory’s office said in a release that troops were “primarily dedicated to protecting infrastructure.”
Founded in 1636, the National Guard was originally a “citizen force” meant to protect towns from hostile attacks; the military force’s current mission is to “serve both community and country” and “defend the American way of life” during an emergency, according to its official website. Spokesperson Lynn Kirby told me that the president and state governors can call in National Guard soldiers to support regular armed forces during wartime or a national emergency. In addition, “the governor or president both have the authority to delegate down” to other branches in the state or federal government, respectively. Kirby added that governors decide how troops are deployed on the state level.
After white police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot unarmed black teen Michael Brown in 2014, Ferguson, MO, erupted in civil unrest. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and deployed the National Guard to reinforce local police in the city. Its role in Ferguson, however, sits in stark contrast to the 1960s when the force protected black civilians’ right to an equal education and to peaceably protest.
That’s not to say the National Guard hasn’t been called in to provide protection against black Americans before. Gov. Pat Brown deployed the California National Guard in 1965 to quell civil unrest in Watts, a neighborhood in Los Angeles, after a black man was reportedly brutalized by police; troops also helped control unrest that erupted in 1992 after video captured LAPD officers beating Rodney King. But, as demonstrated by Kennedy and Johnson, the federal government was also committed to protecting the rights of its black citizens.
Images of tanks and soldiers in fatigues wielding assault rifles in Ferguson, then Baltimore, and most recently Charlotte, has reinforced a lot of what black Americans want to call attention to: that law enforcement is a violent oppositional force meant to monitor and suppress, rather than serve and protect.
During the ‘60s, America was fully engaged in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, and the fact that the U.S. was dealing with a resistance movement spurred by its own citizens didn’t look good on the world stage.
“The civil rights movement didn’t have buy in from all of the American public, but there was a rhetorical argument that they could frame themselves as contents of America,” Adriane Lentz Smith, a Duke University professor specializing in African-American history, told me. In other words, black Americans could use their citizenship as reason for protection from the state.
The current political climate also defines the National Guard’s role today, Lentz-Smith said: “State violence comes in a moment where there is a narrative in which people falsely believe that the struggle for justice in civil rights movement was finished, and that there is no state responsibility [to protect citizens] anymore.”
She added that there’s also “an intense focus on property” in the U.S nowadays.
In April 2015, I covered protests in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black resident of the city’s west side who died in police custody. When I arrived in the blighted, economically depressed community, police presence was heavy and included a few National Guard soldiers around the area where Gray was taken into custody. But mostly, I saw Baltimore Police Department officers in West Baltimore.
The next day, with an hour to kill before an interview, I headed to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor district. A historic seaport with restaurants and bars, it’s a popular tourist attraction with no signs of poverty. Here, just a 10-minute drive away from West Baltimore where protesters were calling for justice in the police-related death of yet another black man, I saw the National Guard everywhere, fortifying what seemed to be the city’s economic interests.
I was confused about why soldiers were deployed to this part Baltimore; there was no unrest and a black person wasn’t shot in the area. As far as I could tell, tourists with money to spend mostly frequented the harbor.
During a time when black Americans are protesting against state-sanctioned violence far too often, it’s a shame that the National Guard has been deployed to protect infrastructure instead of people. Citizens—especially black citizens—need protection now just as much as before.
Clarification: An earlier version of this article inaccurately suggested that state governors have the authority to delegate the right to call in the National Guard to the Department of Defense. Only the president is able to do so.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.