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Parallels in Protest: From the Civil Rights to the First Intifada

In the 1960s, the United States experienced nationwide protests for the justice of African Americans in a society where the status quo was against them. It was a massive movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King to force great change in America. It inspired people of all ages and backgrounds. It inspired people like William David McKinney who took his experiences across the country as well as the world in order to connect with diverse groups of individuals.

First Intifada, Palestinian uprising against Zionist occupation of their land. 12/08/1987, Photographer Unknown, Creative Commons
First Intifada, Palestinian uprising against Zionist occupation of their land. 12/08/1987, Photographer Unknown, Creative Commons

William McKinney served overseas, witnessing and experiencing cultures at peace and at unrest. Before his career in the Foreign Service, he was an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement. He joined university protests against southern segregation, and closely followed the latest news at the time of boycotts in places like Montgomery; it seems like there was never a moment where protesting for civil rights was not on his mind.

More than twenty years later, Israel and Palestine mirrored these events with the First Intifada—a progressively escalating movement of uprising and protest lasting from December 1987 to the early 1990s against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. The First Intifada began after an Israeli military truck crashed into a vehicle killing four Palestinian workers from the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza. As a consequence, violent protests erupted across the region, and Israel responded by sending army and paratroopers to quell the violence. These actions, however, only further ignited the movement.

As a senior program officer stationed in Jordan for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), McKinney experienced some elements similar to those during his years as a student protester. Traveling between the territories of the Israelis and the Palestinians, he faced difficulties with the authorities, constantly questioned on his political position and intentions on entering and exiting the territory. The First Intifada was a critical time for development and diplomacy—movements of official U.S. personnel were restricted, and as a result hardly any interactions with civilians existed. Police and military authorities tracked most social engagements. In an interview with ADST, McKinney explained how the environment took him “back to the Civil Rights period where you ended up dealing with the police and very few civilians.”

In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, William McKinney recounts his experience in Jordan and how the events in the Gaza Strip affected his work with USAID in the community. To learn more about the role of USAID in Jordan and other countries, as well as the Civil Rights movement and the First Intifada, read William McKinney’s interview with ADST.

William McKinney’s interview was conducted by Jay Anania on March 23, 2020

Read William McKinney’s full oral history HERE.

Read more about the First Intifada HERE.

Drafted by Derek Gutierrez

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“Even in remote Maine the changes that were being made in the bus boycott in Montgomery made news in Maine. I was getting information.”

Palestinian Refugees, 1948, Photographer Unknown, Wikimedia Commons
Palestinian Refugees, 1948, Photographer Unknown, Wikimedia Commons

Civil Rights at Universities:
Q: You talked about these sit-ins, could you talk a little about how the students organized themselves, or whether they had help from civil rights groups that were forming?

MCKINNEY: Like I mentioned earlier, when I got to Nashville, Nashville was as segregated as any southern city. The student body at Fisk, especially the Freshmen—I don’t know how it came about, and I never asked why they did it, but the administration asked me to give the welcoming address to the faculty for the Class of 1963. I took that opportunity to reinforce the concept that change was coming. I mentioned the sit-ins in North Carolina at the various department stores. I mentioned the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. I mentioned Martin Luther King . . . .

Q: You were a student who was stuck in some remote part of Maine for much of the previous two years, how were you following the news?

MCKINNEY: I regularly talked on the phone with my mother in Boston during those two years in Maine, and I was and still am a voracious reader of newspapers and the news and now on television and all of the other news outlets that we have. Even in remote Maine the changes that were being made in the bus boycott in Montgomery made news in Maine. I was getting information. I got to go home at Christmas and I got to go home at Easter, and while I was home I bulked up on all of the news coming out of the South. I knew by that time that I was going there to Fisk. Having spent time in Occoquan-Woodbridge and being familiar with what went on there, when I spoke that second week of our orientation, I wanted everyone to be aware that change was coming and that we were going to be part of it, that we had to be looking beyond the gates at Jubilee Hall, which was the main student hall on campus at that time, and how we had to be ready in helping to facilitate that change.

As far as the sit-in demonstrations were concerned, there was a core group with John Lewis and Diana Nash (a junior), and they organized the first sit-in at a Woolworths in Nashville. I think there were maybe 50 or 60 of us that marched from the Fisk campus to downtown Nashville and waited very quietly for seats to open up at the counter. As people left, we went in and sat down, knowing full well that they would never serve us, and basically causing a major disruption to the way things operated at Woolworths.

“You asked me about my safety. I think the only time that I really felt threatened was near the end of that period where the Palestinians finally got into it as well, and the peace movement kind of fell apart.”

Photograph by Rowland Scherman, Wikimedia Commons
Photograph by Rowland Scherman, Wikimedia Commons

The First Intifada: Q: At first largely a peaceful resistance movement and the Israelis responded. It was very controversial in Israel because many Israelis were agitating very heavily for making peace with the Palestinians, the so-called Peace Now Movement. But the government responded to much of this with violence, a break-their-bone strategy, not necessarily killing protesters, but physically moving them and beating them if necessary. So you’re driving to the West Bank in the middle of this. Did you experience or see any of this?

MCKINNEY: No. I saw some of it and it very quickly became very controversial in the mission in Amman in terms of, “Should we be involved with this?” Because of what was going on, it also very quickly ended the program. One bright sun-shiny day some far thinking Israeli economist says, “I know how we could shut down a lot of this!” What they did was, they increased their reserve levels at the banks on the West Bank to $50 million and that basically shut our program down. There wasn’t any way we could provide $50 million dollars in dinar into the Cairo-Amman Bank in any of the cities or areas where we were working and still have funds to conduct our programs. So it basically shut us down.

Q: In other words, in order for these banks to disperse that money, they would have had to increase their own bank reserves and there was no way you could help them do that.

MCKINNEY: We couldn’t do it.

Q: I see, and so those projects just terminated completely?


Q: When did that happen?

MCKINNEY: Late ’87, beginning of ‘88? Whenever the intifada took on a real violent period, that’s when we had to basically pull out.

Q: Yeah, I think you’re correct, that would have basically been 1988.

MCKINNEY: I mean there were forecasts of it if you will on some of the trips that I made. On the Palestinian side it was a completely peaceful, nonviolent movement, but the Israelis responded with a, “Don’t even think you’re going to get away with this,” and beat the hell out of everybody. You asked me about my safety. I think the only time that I really felt threatened was near the end of that period where the Palestinians finally got into it as well, and the peace movement kind of fell apart. They responded in kind and that’s when I got out; just couldn’t do it.

Q: Did you ever feel threatened by Israeli authorities when you were coming and going?

MCKINNEY: Oh, all the time.


Born in Roxbury, Massachusetts January 27, 1940
BA in History and Political Science, Fisk University 1959–1963
MA in South Asian/Indian studies, University of California (UC) Berkeley 1967–1969
Joined the Foreign Service 1980
Amman Jordan—Senior Program Officer, USAID 1987–1990
Sana’a, Yemen—Mission Director, Near East/South Asia Bureau 1993–1996
Retirement 2004