Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in a Birmingham jail cell.
courtesy everett collection
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in a Birmingham jail cell.
(CNN) —  

A debate has been raging in Washington over a so-called lack of “civility” this past week.

As outrage grows over the Trump administration’s immigration policies and the resulting separation and detention of migrant families, some people are engaging in more forceful forms of protest.

Demonstrators shouted at Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen while she dined at a Mexican restaurant. Others rallied outside the apartment building of Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s immigration policy. And a Virginia restaurant owner asked White House press secretary Sarah Sanders to leave because of her role in President Donald Trump’s administration.

Some Democrats have encouraged these methods of protest. Rep. Maxine Waters urged people to publicly confront Trump officials, while Rep. John Lewis tweeted that people shouldn’t be afraid to “make some noise and get in good trouble.” But people on both sides of the aisle have also been swift to denounce such actions, saying that harassing government officials is counterproductive or even un-American.

But Americans have a long history of protesting, a right enshrined in the US Constitution – and those protests have often been disruptive and controversial.

Nowhere is this more evident than the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, which relied on acts of civil disobedience to agitate and pressure government officials to honor the equal rights of African-Americans.

The sit-in movement

In 1960, four black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, walked into a Woolworth department store and demanded service at the whites-only lunch counter. Though they were asked to leave, they stayed in their seats until the store closed. The next day, they came back with even more students.

The small protest sparked controversy throughout the city. Soon, white people who opposed desegregation came to heckle, threaten and even abuse the students. Nevertheless, they remained steadfast. Their action even set off a wave of sit-ins at restaurants and other segregated spaces throughout the South.

“The sit-in movement energized and transformed the struggle for racial equality,” Christopher W. Schmidt, a professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, wrote in an editorial for USA TODAY. “It moved the struggle’s front lines from courtrooms and legislatures to the streets, and it had a younger generation of activists as its leaders.”

Four African-American students participate in a sit-in at a F. W. Woolworth's lunch counter reserved for white customers in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Four African-American students participate in a sit-in at a F. W. Woolworth's lunch counter reserved for white customers in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960.

Sit-ins worked because they disrupted people’s daily lives. Protesters encroached on spaces where white people had long maintained superiority and barred black people from entering. It was an act of civil disobedience that was extremely controversial at the time – and the protesters were criticized for what detractors considered uncivil behavior.

The Birmingham Campaign

In 1963, civil rights organizations launched a campaign to desegregate public facilities in Birmingham, Alabama, by targeting the city’s downtown shopping district.

After sit-ins, marches and a boycott of local merchants, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested for violating the state’s mass demonstration law. Local religious leaders called the demonstrators’ actions “unwise and untimely.”

Black protesters kneeling before City Hall in Birmingham, Alabama, minutes before being arrested for parading without a permit on April 6, 1963.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group Editorial/Getty Images
Black protesters kneeling before City Hall in Birmingham, Alabama, minutes before being arrested for parading without a permit on April 6, 1963.

That criticism prompted King to pen “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In the letter, King denounced the idea that people who had been denied rights and freedoms should be patient and wrote of his disappointment with “the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”

“Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive,” King wrote.

The 1963 March on Washington

King and other civil rights leaders faced similar opposition during the 1963 March on Washington.

Even though President John F. Kennedy was sympathetic to its goals, he initially opposed the march for fear that it would lead to rioting and violence. He also argued it could jeopardize the Civil Rights Act from getting the support it needed to pass Congress.

Civil rights leaders warned instead that efforts to shut down the march would incite riots, and insisted on allowing this nonviolent protest to go ahead in order to counter the possibility of more drastic measures. It was at the march that King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech that is now celebrated as a benchmark in American history.

Furthermore, history suggests that the march actually sped up the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Crowds gather at the National Mall during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom political rally in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963.
NBCUniversal/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images
Crowds gather at the National Mall during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom political rally in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963.

Today’s civility debate

William Chafe, a history professor at Duke University and author of “Civility and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom,” said that recent calls for people to be more civil to each other misunderstand the history of civility.

“For the most part, civility has been used as a vehicle for not changing things,” he said.

Chafe said he’s concerned that today’s civility debate is focusing on the actions of a few protesters while ignoring the issues that have prompted mass demonstrations.

“I think it’s important to keep our eye on what the issues really are, and while recognizing that certain actions are inappropriate, recognizing that above all, you don’t change things without making demands,” he said.

People’s sense of urgency about an issue goes up when they can see a tangible effect on the lives of others, said Clayborne Carson, a history professor at Stanford University. The people demonstrating against Trump officials today are expressing anger over the situation of immigrants and asylum seekers at the southern border.

“Does the urgency justify a certain level of disruption and disrupting other people’s lives?” Carson asked. “I think that most people who engage in civil disobedience do think through those issues.”

But people are bound to disagree on where to draw the line, Carson added. He said that although he supports demonstrating against members of the White House at official events and appearances, he disagrees with the restaurant owner’s decision to cut short the press secretary’s private dinner, saying it crossed a boundary people should respect.

“With protests, you’re always making a judgment about what is appropriate given what is at stake,” Carson said. “I can understand how people are not going to be overly concerned about decorum and how disruptive they are when part of the point of it is to be disruptive.”