Rethinking “Outside Agitators”!

Whoops, there it is!

It didn’t take long. After weeks of commencement interrupting protests that swept the nation, the predictable blame and finger pointing took off like a rocket. The culprit this time?

University policy? Nope!

Trump fatigue? Nope! 

No, pulling up a trope for the past, the boogeyman this time are those meddling “outside agitators,” the ones who stir up the “natives,” then hightail it in their slick BMWs out of town to the next protest opportunity, leaving campuses to clean up the mess, including waffling statements by university officials.

So let me start with an analogy to build on for the rest of this narrative.

As I penned the piece you’re now reading, I sipped on a fresh cup of coffee poured by “Mario” at a nearby coffee shop. Well, because it needed a sweetener, I added some. But lo and behold, it settled on the bottom and stayed there. That is until I stirred – hold this word- “agitated ” – my coffee to make it do what stirrers are designed to do; make it consumable. Hold this paragraph for now. I’ll get back to it at the end, but back to the subject at hand, “outside agitators.”

The truth is that “outsider agitators” dot the pages of history, built this nation ground up and were instrumental in influencing the nation in one way or another. On the positive side of the spectrum think the busloads of Freedom Riders filled with protestors from the North who ventured into the deep South to challenge segregation.

And while there think the Reverend James Reeb, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and Viola Liuzzo, “outside agitators” them all from the North who lost their lives fighting for the right of Black folks to vote. The point is that “outside agitators” was a dog whistle opposing the protests and marches that were common in the 1960s and early ’70s. To me it was an insult to the “inside agitators,” who actually lived and fought for equality in the South and paid the price in their struggle for equality before the outsiders arrived, often at their invitation. Think James Chaney, Medgar Evers, and untold others.

Now the opinion here is that playing the “outside agitators” card masks the real reasons why protestors show up in the first place; in the past for voting rights and segregation, today the blurred line between free and hate speech and university policy in the Israel/Garza conflict.

“The notion — or rather fiction — of the ‘outside agitator’ was a persistent trope, especially during the early years of the civil rights movement,” said Thomas C. Holt, a professor of African American history at the University of Chicago who helped organize demonstrations during the 1960s.

“Part of the motivation for the charge was to sustain the myth that the locals were satisfied with things as they were,” he said, “and if you could just crack down on the outsiders, the protests would cease. As the movement grew and spread, that myth became more difficult to sustain.”

But the concept of “outside agitators” in popular protests has persisted, in part because it is rooted in some truth: Then as now, activists and leaders traveled from city to city to help organize demonstrations against events of mutual interest.

Civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled frequently to cities outside Atlanta and was regularly labeled an outsider by local officials who argued that that “our coloreds” were content and happy until the troublemakers arrived. Dr. King addressed his “outside agitator” accusation in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

Now while on the subject, was not the crowd that descended on the capital on January 6, 2021, comprised mostly outside agitators? Maybe I missed the memo, but I only saw them labeled as “patriots,” “Oath Keepers” or “proud boys,” but never “outside agitators.”

Similarly, were many of the Alt-right protestors who rampaged in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 to protest the removal of the stature of Confederate general Robert. E. Lee while mouthing “Jews will not replace us” ever called “outside agitators”? Are some types of “outside agitators “more palatable and acceptable than others? These are all questions deserving answers, don’t you think?

Look folks, in the end, every single one of us can take on the role of an “outside agitator” in how we act during everyday experiences and observations about what we see and know when our gut tells us “Hey, that just ain’t right.”

You can agitate by your refusal to participate, by coaching and mentoring, by letters to the editor, presenting alternative views on social media, mixing with those who don’t look and think like you, becoming an ally, whatever meets your fancy.

I’ll close by circling back to my coffee analogy. Had I not stirred up that sweetener that settled on the bottom, well, nothing would have changed, and that coffee would not have reached its full potential.

“Hey Mario, I need an extra stirrer for my coffee!”

Terry Howard is an award-winning trainer, writer, and storyteller. He is a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Douglas County Sentinel,, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers guild, recipient of the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Award, and third place winner of the 2022 Georgia Press Award.


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