Sixty-one years ago, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus and settled into American history. We’ve seen the iconic pictures of Parks getting booked at the police station, or later staged seated on a bus looking pensively out the window. Parks has become one of the great, mythic figures of the Civil Rights era ― a kind of sanctified figure who feels worlds away from the current, volatile era of social justice. But she isn’t.
Today’s fight for civil rights and social justice may, on the surface, seem like the very antithesis of the movement in which Parks played an integral part. In many ways, this is true. The intersection of technology, social media, and grassroots activism has produced a very different kind of struggle. The #BlackLivesMatter movement, created by Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza, has been criticized for being divisive (”All lives matter!”), disruptive, aimless, and even violent, in the wake of heated protests in Ferguson and, more recently, Chicago.
#BlackLivesMatter protestors are considered a stark contrast to the apparent respectability of the civil rights activists of the 1960s. When we think of those protesters, we think of peaceful black people marching quietly in church clothes, turning the other cheek and nobly rising above the abuse of water-hose wielding police officers and tear gas.
People believe #BlackLivesMatter has failed and will fail to replicate the successes of the Civil Rights era because its overriding message is one of frustration, not “peace and love.” But this perception of the 1960s Civil Rights era as “respectable” and #BlackLivesMatter as disruptive is far too simplistic, disregarding the nuances of both movements.
In an essay for The Washington Post published in August, minister Barbara Reynolds wrote about her frustrations with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, having been a civil rights activist in the 1960s. She wrote:
Trained in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr., we were nonviolent activists who won hearts by conveying respectability and changed laws by delivering a message of love and unity...The [#BlackLivesMatter] demonstrations are peppered with hate speech, profanity, and guys with sagging pants that show their underwear.
Reynolds’s frustration with the millennial approach to civil rights is, on a certain level, understandable. But the distinction made between the “respectability” of the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and ‘60s and today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement isn’t totally fair.
In our elementary school classrooms Parks has been introduced as the meek Christian woman who refused to give her bus seat up for a white rider simply because she was tired. In actuality, Parks made a calculated act of defiance, orchestrated by the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP of which she was an active and passionate member, designed to be the catalyst for what would become the Civil Rights Movement.
It's important to remember that part of why Parks was chosen to spark the bus boycott was a question of respectability -- she was a seamstress and a secretary, "Somebody [we] could win with," as chapter president E.D. Nixon explained later. (NAACP Youth Council member Claudette Colvin had been the organization's first choice, but was dropped after she became pregnant at 15.)
And yet, "respectability" was not the beginning and end of who Parks was. Parks was not passive, she was not meek. Indeed, the incident marked the second time she had been kicked off the bus, by the same driver, in a time when these kinds of public protests were not only frowned upon, but incredibly dangerous. Parks was defiant, she was inconvenient, she was disruptive. So often, disruptiveness and defiance are mistaken for a kind of violence. Do we expect that Parks quiet, polite, "respectable," when she refused to give up her seat, knowing that she would be arrested and harassed?
“Parks was defiant, she was inconvenient, she was disruptive.”
Criticisms of the #BlackLivesMatter movement consistently pit it against the Civil Rights Movement. "What would Martin Luther King think," detractors ask. "What would Rosa Parks think?" Rosa Parks would believe that black lives matter, because Rosa Parks, alongside King and the NAACP, formed the catalyst for the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
The iconic photos of Parks in our history books are only a fraction of who she really was, and what she truly represented. Into the '70s, '80s, and '90s, Parks remained a passionate activist, speaking out against housing discrimination, police brutality, and our broken prison system.
In her private writings, recently released to the public, she wrote about the frustration, dismay, and anger she felt about racism and segregation. "There is just so much hurt, disappointment and oppression one can take," she once wrote. "The line between reason and madness grows thinner." Her justifiable anger and defiance is what links today's civil rights activist to Parks and her contemporaries. In that sense, the #BlackLivesMatter movement is not a disruption but a continuation of the work that Parks and others began.
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