Sundiata Cha-Jua/Real Talk: Montgomery Bus Boycott: A transformative event

Sundiata Cha-Jua/Real Talk: Montgomery Bus Boycott: A transformative event

Dec. 1 marked the 62nd anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (MBB). The MBB altered African-Americans' mode of struggle. It was a transformative event. In drastically revising black folk's repertories of resistance, the bus boycott launched the modern civil rights movement. What are the lessons from this critical event?

Today, we recognize the MBB as a seminal event. That was not the case when it began. The first story The New York Times published about the boycott ran a few paragraphs and appeared on page 10. Now, the MBB is recognized as one of the defining events of the 20th century.

Even still, the MBB remains shrouded in myth. A large part of the problem is the historical amnesia that characterizes the U.S. However, our fondness for misinformation and misinterpretation is probably due more to our preference for soothing fairytales and simplistic parables, rather than hard truths.

Amazingly, some accounts of the MBB still present Rosa Parks' defiant act as the product of an elderly woman's exhaustion, after a grueling workday. This story, while perhaps comforting to children, is blatantly untrue. Nonetheless, it performs real work, for the oppressors.

This fiction mischaracterizes Parks, and in doing so, it falsifies the history of the Black Liberation movement. She was not elderly; she was 42, middle-aged. She was tired, but not physically. In her 1992 autobiography, "Rosa Parks: My Story," Parks observes, "I was tired of giving in to white people." Recalling that since childhood, she had believed apartheid and its social relations of racial deference were unfair. She states, "from the time I was a child, I tried to protest against disrespectful treatment." As her statement suggest, Parks was a lifelong activist.

Additionally, the week of her protest, she had attended a Regional Council of Negro Leadership meeting in Mississippi about the murder of Emmett Till.

When told to give up her seat to make room for white riders, Parks says she thought of the 14-year-old Till and "couldn't go back." That is, she could no longer acquiesce to racial degradation.

Parks' conscious action sparked a 13-month long boycott of the buses, and of downtown white merchants, during the 1956 holiday season. The organization created from her defiance, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), applied tactics that would transform the African- American liberation struggle. The MIA transformed the black struggle from a movement led by a few lawyers into a movement led by hundreds of pastors. It shifted the main tactics of the movement from litigation to organizing the masses of black people to take direct action using civil disobedience against their oppressors.

Nonviolent mass direct action and civil disobedience became the defining characteristics of the civil rights movement.

The MIA also adopted tactics from previous generations, such as mass meetings. There had been mass protests before; blacks had boycotted trollies and trains in the late 1890s and early 20th century. Working through Chicago's Alpha Suffrage Club, Ida B. Wells had introduced mass organizing-neighborhood canvassing and weekly political education classes in the 1910s. In the heat of the Great Depression, black radicals transformed the vigils and parades of the 1910s and 1920s into militant marches. The picketing and mass marches sponsored by the jobs or "Don't Buy, Where You Can't Work" campaigns and the "hunger marches" sponsored by the Communist Party provided models that became dominant during the civil rights movement's student-led, second wave, 1960 to 1968.

The CRM was distinct from the movement that preceded it. It was distinct in terms of tactics, leadership, style and the social base of its membership. Though led by middle class ministers (and later students), it mobilized members of the working class black majority. Thus, unlike the legal movement that preceded it, the CRM was a working-class social movement.

The MBB demonstrated African-Americans' capacity for self-emancipation. It was an all-black movement. The MIA organized 50,000 black folks to boycott the city buses, their primary means of transportation, for more than a year. MIA activists created a transportation system in which middle-class blacks provided vehicles to take working class blacks to and from work. Montgomery black activists used existing black religious and civic associations to create a national network of supporters.

The MBB transformed African-Americans' social consciousness.

Built on the institutional and cultural resources of the African-American community, the MBB demonstrated African-Americans' political efficacy. It revealed that African-Americans could not only organize large numbers of people, but that they could also sustain a struggle for 381 days.

The MBB convinced black people of their culture's viability. The African-American church — its communal character, the tradition of testifying, the spirituals, and the charisma of its ministerial leadership—was the foundation upon which the CRM was erected.

If the MBB offers a parable; then the lessons are:

1. We never know what individuals or incident will ignite a transformative movement;

2. Transformative African-American struggles must be grounded in the community's institutions, social networks, and cultural practices; and

3. The foundation for transformative black struggles is the black community's working-class majority. Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois and is a member of the North End Breakfast Club. His email is schajua@gmail.com.

Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois and is a member of the North End Breakfast Club. His email is schajua@gmail.com.

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