Movements and the Cult of Personality

Teaching personalities may be easier, but it is also disempowering. Above all else, movements are propelled by hundreds or thousands of people, not by leaders. This is a very humble request to put the move back into movements.
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The 1950s-60s movements for black rights always bring specific names to mind: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X. These leaders have come to symbolize that period of American history for us. However, it was countless numbers of ordinary people who moved the country through creative mobilization and organizational tactics. Despite that reality, the national discourse that we promote in primary and secondary education encourages us to engage with the history of movements as the history of exceptional individuals. And while movements usually have a handful of leaders, it is countless ordinary people who organize themselves as well as those around them, and make their demands over a long period of time before they can affect change.

We learn more about the personal lives of several leaders and their interaction with the movement than about the way that human collectives mobilize movements, organize them, and create/disseminate their message. The biggest losers in this equation are our youth. Ordinary students (young people) lose two things along the way: empowerment, as they find it difficult to relate to an individual that we as a society divinely revere; and solidarity, because movements are depicted as individualized rather than communal structures. Consequently we learn as students, and as citizens, to remain passive until a savior comes along to rescue us.

Impugning our revolutionary leaders is far from my goal. Neither do I suggest that we should no longer value them and teach them in our schools. I only suggest that education around these movements focus less on a handful of figures and more on the groups of people and mechanisms that carried the movement forward through numbers and organization. Without this, leaders could not accomplish anything. By focusing on individuals (inspirational as they may be) we sacrifice the study of the movement. Several individuals simply cannot sustain a movement; not even several dozen individuals can accomplish that. Movements require mass collective action.

U.S. history is abundant with rights movements, all of which required, most importantly, bodies on the ground. The moral prerogative and creativity of 1950s-60s organized U.S. movements for equal rights, for example, should not rest on the shoulders of a handful of exceptional figures.

The historical fallacies that underpin the way we teach our youth about the Civil Rights Movement are exemplified in the myth of the Rosa Parks "moment." The myth that has long been taught about Rosa Parks was that she happened, coincidentally, to be "too tired" to relocate so that white passengers could have her seat (see examples of curricula here and here). This is untrue. Rosa Parks, in fact, attended activist trainings and was involved in the movement prior to the day she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. She refused to give her seat up because she had been humiliated by sanctioned racial segregation before; in short, she had enough. Lethargy was not her driving force, as it does not take lethargy for the oppressed to engage in an act of resistance. Her driving force was dignity. Parks herself has attempted to set the record straight on this particular issue many times in the past, through interviews and in her autobiography. She writes:

People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.[1]

This detail may seem insignificant. However, the story that "Rosa Parks was too tired" is disempowering; it removes collective action from history entirely. In fact Rosa Parks was not the first person to try this particular act of civil disobedience. This may have been the straw that broke the camel's back, but its significance hinged more on the organized and powerful protest that would follow: the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955.

Boycott by definition challenges the status quo through collective and organized action. It did not happen overnight as a response to Parks's arrest. Activists called meetings in churches, they mobilized the Black community (young and old) in Montgomery to walk for an entire year, even if they were tired, and to spread the word to their friends and families to join the boycott. They held meetings to reinforce and alter their strategy and to reiterate their messaging. The boycott started small and grew larger as time went by, and an entire community realized the power of their collective bargaining by withholding their money from a segregated and racist public transportation authority.

Organized mass actions such as this one were the backbone and the foundation of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1960 more than 50,000 people (mostly Black) engaged in organized mass action, and an estimated 3,600 people were jailed for integrating lunch counters and bus rides across state lines.[2] Such massive actions required careful strategizing, organization, and mobilization. When I finally learned these things the entire movement suddenly became so relatable, not as a moment in my country's past, but as a possibility for my own lifetime. This is not to say that movements are easy to come by. Rather movements are possible.

This was the most important lesson I learned, yet I learned it so late. We do not give our students the tools to analyze the details of organizing a movement, despite this being the most significant information that they can receive. Instead, the lesson we teach them is that every fifty years or so, in the face of injustice, we must await an exceptional figure or two to lead us. We stand no chance to right the wrongs of the world around us without the spontaneous presence of this enigmatic once-in-a-lifetime figure.

Therein lies another danger in making individuals into divine greater-than-life subjects of legend: they become difficult to relate to. This is at the core of disempowerment. In the face of such figures, it becomes all too easy for a student to think: I am not a legend, and probably will not be, because I have already made so many mistakes, I am so reluctant, etc. But when a movement's failures and successes are made apparent to me, and I know that the driving force behind any movement are people as regular, simple, and nuanced as I am, I can feel empowered too.

It is not easy to scrutinize a movement as a movement: to review the successes and failures, the mobilization tactics, the outreach and publicity strategies, the stances taken and the opportunities missed. Teaching personalities may be easier, but it is also disempowering. Above all else, movements are propelled by hundreds or thousands of people, not by leaders. This is a very humble request to put the move back into movements.

[1] Rosa Parks, My Story (New York: Puffin Books, 1992), 116.

[2] Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005), 453.

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