White Fragility and “To Kill a Mockingbird”
Blessed Are the Rejected for They Shall Lead the Revival

The Power of Protest During the “Kinder and Gentler” Presidency of George H. W. Bush

By Mary Frances Berry

George H. W. Bush campaigning in Melbourne, FL
George H. W. Bush campaigning in Melbourne, FL, 1980. Photo credit: Donald Gregory “Donn” Dughi

Today, on National Day of Mourning, many gathered at Washington National Cathedral—and in front of their flatscreens—to attend the state funeral of former President George H. W. Bush. As important as it is to honor his legacy, it’s equally important to point out that his presidency didn’t benefit everyone. (After all, we’re seeing a replay of threats to our civil liberties play out during our current administration.) Historian and activist Mary Frances Berry does so in History Teaches Us to Resist: How Progressive Movements Have Succeeded in Challenging Times. This passage highlights some of the regressive policies his administration enforced, and more significantly, the resistance movements that took them on full force.


Protest movements began to shift tactics in the late 1980s. Unlike earlier movements, which had identifiable leaders who demanded specific policy changes, political protests increasingly relied on creative expression to influence the public and public policy. Using storytelling, graffiti, alternative music, street theater, puppetry, and new media technologies, protests sought to change popular culture and mobilize support for progressive change. The medium became the message, as Marshall McLuhan had recommended decades earlier. Now there was rap music, zap actions by the Guerrilla Girls, and Critical Mass, which brings hundreds of people together for bicycle riding in the streets, and which San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown was finally forced to accept. Disruption remained the aim of these gatherings; however, it would be misleading to draw sharp distinctions between protest styles of the 1960s and 1990s. The “Don’t Buy Krugerrands” campaign and the movement against sweatshop apparel all disrupted business as usual and helped persuade politicians to respond favorably.

Protesters against George H. W. Bush’s policies used some cultural forms, but they mainly used the “inside/outside” strategy typical of other movements. These included lobbying and marches, statements from public figures, and ads. At the start, Bush experienced what happens to every president-elect: at least one objection to a cabinet appointment. Bush’s choice of Louis Sullivan, president of Morehouse Medical School in Atlanta, who would be the only black cabinet member as secretary of Health and Human Services drew the ire of antiabortion advocates. They cited remarks he made in a news interview indicating his support for a woman’s right to choose abortion. Bush, avoiding questions about the protests, canceled a news conference at which he had been expected to name additional cabinet choices. Sullivan said he supported the right to choose but without the use of federal funds to no avail. Bush deflected the protests by having Sullivan say he agreed with Bush’s policies and would accept only people “knowledgeable” on abortion issues and recommended by antiabortion groups as his key subordinates. When Bush followed through on appointments, the issue mostly died and Sullivan was confirmed.

AIDS activists used street theater and other tactics in their protests. ACT UP had held its first action on Wall Street during the Reagan administration, in March 1987, to protest the profiteering of pharmaceutical companies such as Burroughs Wellcome, manufacturer of AZT, the first drug approved to fight AIDS. In April 1989, ACT UP members went to Burroughs Wellcome’s headquarters and chained themselves to office furniture to protest the high cost of AZT. On September 14, 1989, ACT UP members chained themselves to the VIP balcony at the New York Stock Exchange, closing trading. Four days later, Burroughs Wellcome reduced the price of AZT by 20 percent, effective immediately, reducing the price to wholesale distributors from $1.50 to $1.20 per capsule. Secretary Sullivan said he was pleased and that the price cut, combined with recent findings that lower dosages could be effective, would reduce the cost of AZT treatment. Peter Staley, an ACT UP activist, said the 20 percent reduction was too little, only a “step in the right direction, but a very small step.”

Protests on the AIDS crisis continued throughout Bush’s four years and during his reelection campaign as so many people died from the disease. Thousands of AIDS activists, organized by ACT UP, stretched a red ribbon around the White House after a debate between presidential candidates Bush, Bill Clinton, and independent Ross Perot in October 1992. The ribbon was in support of AIDS sufferers. Protesters liked Clinton’s proposal for an AIDS czar and even Perot’s call for speedier drug approval, but dismissed Bush’s talk as only being about his supporting more research.

From April 15 to June 4, 1989, there were also successful protests, mainly on the West Coast and in Washington and New York, as part of the international backlash against China in response to its suppression of the popular national democracy movement. The Chinese government used the military to kill many demonstrators and clear out Tiananmen Square, where they had been protesting. Bay Area congressional representatives quickly sought recourse for Chinese students. Bush issued an executive order to give permanent residence to protesters and those at risk of repression. The Chinese Student Protection Act of 1992 established permanent residence for Chinese nationals, targeted toward students. Chinese students who were in the United States during the time of the protests participated in TV interviews, demonstrations, and rallies, and were featured in newspaper articles. Chinese nationals were eligible to apply for permanent residency, even with expired passports. Over the years, the act granted green cards to an estimated fifty-four thousand Chinese nationals.

Unlike the Chinese student protests, Bush’s perpetuation of a no-entry policy toward Haitian refugees did not result in policy improvements. I first met Bush after I went to Rome during the last years of the Reagan administration, along with a small group organized by Jesse Jackson. It was part of our protest against Haitian refugee detention and deportation. We met with Pope John Paul II to discuss what the church might do to help the refugees incarcerated in Florida until they could be returned to Haiti, since they were mostly Catholic. The Catholic bishops responded by trying to alleviate the material deficiencies of their detention. When we returned, we met with then vice president Bush to give the briefing Americans are expected to do when they meet with foreign leaders on matters of US policy and to ask the government to relent. We found him affable, sounding very agreeable but stuck on the policy of returning the Haitians immediately or incarcerating them until they could be returned.

Bush’s engagement in the almost seven-months-long (August 1990 to February 1991) Persian Gulf War stimulated some protests. In October 1990, antiwar protesters across the country demanded an end to the deployment of US military in the war, proposing instead a diplomatic solution. Protesters, in these first coordinated protests, objected to sending two hundred thousand troops to the Persian Gulf as protection for Saudi Arabia’s oil after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. In New York City, a large crowd, variously estimated at four to fifteen thousand people, gathered at Columbus Circle and marched to Times Square, chanting, “Hell no, we won’t go; we won’t fight for Texaco!” In Washington, DC, picketing of the White House and a sit-down on Pennsylvania Avenue closed the streets for two hours. Protests also took place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, and other cities.

Activism against Bush’s return of Haitian refugees continued throughout his administration and accelerated after a coup in Haiti on September 30, 1991. The military ousted Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the island nation’s first democratically elected president. Aristide came to the United States, and an increased fl ow of refugees left on creaky boats for the United States. US policy became a demand for negotiations to bring him back to power, despite qualms among some US officials concerning his militant leftist politics. “It’s an election year, and people don’t want poor black folks coming here,” said Democratic congressman Charles Rangel in a televised interview. “If these people came from a country that had oil or if they had some wealth, there would be adjustments made.”

The House and its committees took several actions during 1992 to protest the Bush administration’s policy of returning Haitian refugees. But none of those measures became law. In September 1992, TransAfrica, the NAACP, and other groups organized a protest at the White House. Coretta King, tennis champion Arthur Ashe, and others joined us in marching and getting arrested along with ninety or so others. Arthur was physically very weak from illness, and this was the last time he could come with us to demonstrate on human rights issues. He was hospitalized soon thereafter and died of complications from AIDS, which he contracted from a blood transfusion, on February 6, 1993. The policy of no entry to Haitian refugees was inherited and retained continuously by presidential administrations, except for a brief period after one of the hurricanes.

For civil rights advocates, domestic civil rights challenges in addition to AIDS sparked resistance. An insider strategic lobbying strategy was crucial, but targeted grassroots activism made a difference at key points in successful legislative campaigns. Bush vetoed the family and medical leave bills twice, even though women’s groups took the lead on mobilizing bipartisan support in Congress. The terrain remained particularly difficult on race issues. Just as blacks who undermined civil rights were appointed in the Reagan years, they continued to spring up all over the Bush administration, in Congress, and at the Supreme Court with the confirmation of Clarence Thomas as an associate justice. The Reaganite color-blind society theatrics had taught that black or female appointees were just as likely as the white men they served to spout anti–civil rights rhetoric and take retrograde actions accordingly.

But at first an “era of good feelings” prevailed, based on Bush’s history and the hope that he would be “kinder and gentler” than Reagan. He and his appointees were generally more low key than the Reagan group. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, a former Pennsylvania governor, and low-profile John Dunne, assistant attorney general for civil rights, went along as the White House denounced “racial quotas” repeatedly and deliberately invoked this catchphrase to imply unfairness to whites in favor of unqualified blacks in employment. The administration’s goal was to undermine the passage of a new job discrimination bill, which was urgently needed. In the states, the Steel Belt rusted as a recession and unemployment grew, with black unemployment twice as high as that of whites. Reagan’s deficit and tax cuts exacerbated class and racial tensions. Klansman David Duke ran a nearly successful race for governor of Louisiana against Edwin Edwards, who would later uphold the state’s tradition of governors being jailed for corruption. Duke’s popularity with voters in and out of the Pelican State underscored the visibility of white supremacy in American politics.

Bush’s soothing calls for a “kinder and gentler America,” with a “thousand points of light,” perversely brought more victims of injustice seeking justice. Individuals filed more complaints of discrimination against employers, police officers, rental agents, schools, and real estate brokers than they had since the beginning of the Reagan administration. In 1990, the Department of Justice received 9,800 civil rights complaints, well over the 7,500 received in 1986.


During the years of the Bush administration, activists’ legislative responses to Supreme Court cases were effective, well targeted, and well timed. The AIDS protesters, under the mantle of ACT UP, used guerrilla tactics and gained a reduction in price of AZT and accelerated an FDA drug-safety review. The Civil Rights Act protests did not become a movement, and the technical nature of the decisions inhibited understanding. The Thomas embarrassment, combined with protests over his opposition to the Family and Medical Leave Act, as well as attacks from leaders such as Vernon Jordan and criticism from the media, eroded Bush’s popularity and helped lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991. The course of events and the Supreme Court opinions imply that the massive prochoice marches influenced the court not to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Bush lost the 1992 election to Clinton because he seemed bored at times, and there didn’t seem to be a rationale, beyond experience, for his reelection. Additionally, his violation of his promise to not raise taxes turned off some in the Republican base. Bush also seemed not to have a policy to deal with the ongoing economic recession, while Clinton’s deployment of the slogan coined by James Carville, “It’s the economy, stupid,” was successful. Ross Perot’s candidacy also contributed to Bush’s defeat. Perot took almost 20 percent of the popular vote, making Clinton a minority president.


About the Author 

Mary Frances Berry is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of History and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the former chairwoman of the US Commission on Civil Rights, a Distinguished Fellow of the American Society for Legal History, the author of twelve books, and the recipient of thirty-five honorary degrees. Dr. Berry has appeared on Real Time with Bill MaherThe Daily ShowTavis SmileyPBS NewsHourCBS Evening NewsAl Jazeera America News, and various MSNBC and CNN shows. She is the author of History Teaches Us to Resist: How Progressive Movements Have Succeeded in Challenging Times. Follow her on Twitter at @DrMFBerry and visit her website.