Alex Blaze

Four facts I didn't know about the Montgomery bus boycott

Filed By Alex Blaze | September 20, 2010 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Politics, The Movement
Tags: civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr., rosa parks, stride toward freedom

It seems you can't shake a dead cat anymore without someone using Martin Luther King to prove their point. MLK - Stride.jpgConservatives claim he was one of them - he once said, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," which they interpret to mean that he wanted everyone to stop talking about race and racism. White liberals counter that he was one of their own because they think he fought for equal treatment of black and white people, starting the first major post-war identity movement. Liberal LGBT people cite him often, to show that there's already precedent for their movement and to try to short-cut through many of the arguments made against the LGBT movement.

He's almost being treated like Jesus - his words are being taken out of context to support people's points, as if they've decided that since he's a great man, he must have thought like them and if he said something, then it's automatically true (open to the interpretation of the speaker, of course). It's annoying both in that I doubt that's what King would have wanted, both as a scholar and as a Christian.

But that really shouldn't happen. Unlike Jesus, King's words were written in contemporary English, he wrote his words himself, and, while he used metaphors liberally, he used few (none that I've found so far) cryptic parables. If people really do want to live the path that King did, to understand who he was and what he believed, all they have to do is go to the library and pick up one of books.

So, since Bob Somberby has been pleading with his readers for weeks to read Stride Toward Freedom, King's account of the Montgomery bus boycott, I did. It was absolutely riveting, on top of being a deep philosophical and theological text that mixed both scholarship and on-the-ground praxis. I'm inspired to write about it here to encourage you all to read it if you haven't and to discuss it since I'm late to this party.

As I wrote Friday, I'm not around this week. So I left Bil with a series of five posts on Stride Toward Freedom, since it's really that good of a book. I'm going to get into some bigger themes in the other posts, but this one is just four things that stood out to me, particularly because of what they say about us, today, in this movement.

  1. Rosa Parks was a former secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP. I knew she had a background in activism and had studied at the Highlander Folk School, and that she was much more than what we usually learn in school (little old lady decided she was too tired one day to move to the back of the bus, and, poof, the Civil Rights Movement happened), but I didn't know that she was a bona fide member of the Nonprofit Industrial Complex.

    King himself was a member of both the NAACP and the Council on Human Relations, about which he says he was "surprised to learn that so many people found my dual interest... inconsistent." Surprised because the NAACP focused on legislation and court battles while the Council focused on public education and cultural change. How could someone support two strategies that are different?

    The lesson for LGBT people is obvious today, with one of the heroes of the boycott being both a body-on-the-line activist and a nonprofit staffer and another concerned with both cultural change and legal/policy change. It turns out that when two organizations have the same goals and are defined by the same values, differing tactics are really besides the point.

    And I'm, of course, referring to the debates on the relative importance of HRC and GetEqual from a few months ago, two organizations with the same values and goals but different tactics. I don't see why there's much a debate about which is better when they're doing the same thing.

  2. The choice of a bus boycott was intentionally class conscious. When King arrived in Montgomery, he observed three problems with three classes of people, problems that he thought were holding the community back: A) "an appalling lack of unity among the leaders"; B) "indifference" among the educated middle class; and C) "the apparent passivity of the majority of the uneducated." I'd be the last to say that the LGBT movement is the same as the Civil Rights Movement (that's tomorrow's post: "Gay is not the new Black: Why replicating King's strategies won't work for the contemporary queer"), but doesn't that sound familiar?

    In choosing a bus boycott, the action was centered on the lives and interests of the working class. And King was specifically worried that the "indifferent" middle class:

    The mass meetings also cut across class lines. The vast majority present were working people; yet there was always an appreciable number of professionals in the audience. Physicians, teachers, and lawyers sat or stood beside the domestic workers and unskilled laborers. The PhD's and the no "D's" were bound together in a common venture. The so-called "big Negroes" who owned cars and had never ridden the buses came to know the maids and the laborers who rode the buses every day. Men and women who had been separated from each other by false standards of class were now singing and praying together in a common struggle for freedom and human dignity. [emph. mine]

    Imagine that - an action developed from the priorities and needs of the working class. What a topsy-turvy world by 2010 standards. Yes, working class and impoverished people are still the majority of America, but are they listened to? Does anyone with power care what they think, much less sacrifice time and energy to benefit them?

  3. King was able to discuss Karl Marx without discombobulating. There's an interesting chapter in the middle where King discusses the philosophical background of the philosophy of nonviolence that he first put into practice in Montgomery. (That chapter alone is worth getting your hands on a copy of this book.) He discusses Hegel, Nietzsche, of course, Gandhi, and... Karl Marx.

    Now, he disagrees with Marx on lots of points, the first and foremost of which is that Marx was an atheist (King does not say that Marx was atheist so his beliefs only apply to him; King said Marx was wrong, in an absolute sense, because Marx didn't take God and the principles of the Christian faith into account). But also agrees with Marx in that pure capitalism is an oppressive system, and he credits Communism generally with being a protest for the underprivileged and for challenging people to be concerned with social justice.

    I'm reading John Maynard Keynes's General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, and right in the preface he's citing Marx's scholarly work as scholarly work (and Keynes was no Communist). What happened between then and today? How can someone like King have read, discussed, and published in a non-academic context on Marx at the height of the Red Scare when a majority of people today can't hear "Marxist" without thinking "Kill! Smash! Destroy!" Perhaps King was an aberration along those lines for his time; perhaps we've moved so far to the right and our discourse has gotten so oversimplified that we can't imagine the caricature behind our last Existential War having anything worth discussing.

  4. The Montgomery bus boycott was much larger than the actions of King and Parks. No, it wouldn't have been the same had neither been born, but King stresses over and over again that the movement was much larger than himself and that the conditions had been building for a while and the energy behind it was larger than the organizers.

    Rosa Parks wasn't the first person to be disrespected, punished, or arrested for not following segregation rules on the bus (King mentions two stories, one of an arrest, one of a pastor being kicked off the bus, and he wasn't trying to put together a comprehensive history), and Montgomery wasn't the first city to decide to boycott the bus system (King called up a pastor in Baton Rouge for help). It wasn't the first city to desegregate its buses either. King wasn't the only talented pastor in the city that cared about integration, and he wasn't the only activist committed to nonviolence.

    There was an organization formed, with dozens of people on various committees and support from many churches. Hundreds of people worked and planned and organized and spoke out and drove and donated and got involved. And, of course, there were the estimated 50,000 people who sacrificed their comfort and time for over a year to avoid the buses. King himself didn't understand how it all came together, writing that there was a "suprarational" quality to the boycott that couldn't be explained without a "divine dimension." He also submitted his resignation as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association twice when he thought he wasn't effective.

    I'm not pointing this out because it's any surprise, but because the way history often gets taught in schools is as a story of great men accomplishing large feats, separated from the community, the social forces, and the ideas that shaped their times. Could George Washington have crossed the Delaware if no one rowed the boat for him? Would anyone care about Michaelangelo today if no one paid him? Would Galileo be remembered at all if no one taught him at school, raised him and made the food he ate, had no one done the research that his work built on?

    That combined with the poor education lots of students receive on this portion of history - Rosa Parks was the first person who was just too tired to go to the back of the bus (fun fact: she was already in the back of the bus when she was asked to give up her seat), then the Civil Rights Movement happened, and everything was solved - it's worth repeating that these actions required the participation of tens of thousands of people and didn't produce immediate results. Even the boycott in Montgomery led to increased segregation elsewhere as segregationists tried to compensate.

    These events are not the product of a great person finally coming along, bashing heads together, and setting everything straight. History's more complicated than that.

Tomorrow I'll get into more specifics, discussing why just quoting King out of context and applying his words to the LGBTQ movement isn't the level of reason we need right now. Moreover, I'm concerned about how every now and then someone will just randomly lament that there's no "gay Martin Luther King" to unite us all and lead us to freedom equality. Then the lessons that we, as queer people, can and should learn from him will take up the rest of the week.

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"And I'm, of course, referring to the debates on the relative importance of HRC and GetEqual from a few months ago, two organizations with the same values and goals but different tactics. I don't see why there's much a debate about which is better when they're doing the same thing."

I'm afraid that neither HRC or GetEQUAL has a strategy to achieve our full equality. HRC continues to rely on legislative lobbying - with no actual results (in 30 years they can't confirm a single vote change in the US Congress).

Comparing GetEQUAL (in any way) to the Montgomery bus boycott (or Rosa Parks) is just silly. GetEQUAL isn't boycotting anything, they are simply "embarrassing people that disagree with us." That doesn't work as a tactic - just ask the Westboro Baptist Clan. There is a reason why groups have stopped street protests and civil disobedience for the last 20 years - they don't work and in fact many time are counterproductive. On an even simpler level, why does anyone believe that "embarrassing" someone inspires them or educates or even enlightens them? It's a childish premise - in fact, it's easy to see a toddler using that tactic (and they do, regularly).

I think ALL of Gay Inc. needs to be held accountable. That means honestly and objectively determining what tactics work and what tactic do not work. That's an issue of efficiency and effectiveness. HRC and GetEQUAL may have the same "goals" (although I think both organizations are primarily concerned with their salaries) but having a mission statement seeking "full equality" isn't enough. Neither has a strategy to win. If they aren't pursuing a way to win, what exactly are they doing?

I am looking forward to your additional posts regarding Stride Toward Freedom. I hope during your review you acknowledge how much the world has changed since the 1960s and how different our struggle is. The world has changed dramatically - oddly our movement hasn't. We're still copying obsolete tactics from the distant past.

Yes, it is often necessary for us to re-teach ourselves the things we learned in grade school, now realizing that the version we were handed then was simplified, washed, scrubed, and sanitized "for the protection of the children" ... yeah, right.

Regarding Point 1, I have an observation more to make about NAACP than Rosa Parks: Relative to the happenings of the day, the NAACP was a relatively conservative organization --- and many blacks criticized it for not doing enough fast enough, just as LGBT folks today criticize HRC. (But then, how many NAACP leaders made it on to Best Dressed Lists because they went about in designer suits?)

Re Point 2, Alex, I agree with you completely. Today, "class" seems to be the elephant in the living room, just as sexual orientation once was. Today, we can discuss which celebrity is gay or lesbian, but we are not supposed to mention that poor people of all races are living on the street after having their houses foreclosed.

Re Point 3, I feel certain that King's knowledge of Karl Marx, and his courage at including discussions of him in his writings, may not have resulted in shouts of "Kill! Smash! Destory!" --- but they probably did make a very convenient excuse for getting him under heavy surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. MLK was not a Communist, but many in the federal government wanted to smear him as such.

Re Point 4, there were many civil rights advances during the 40's and early 50's that don't get "officially" included in the Civil Rights Movement, perhaps the largest being the good performance of black regimens during WW-II and the desegregation of the military by Truman during the Korean War. Many military and federal leaders had been won over by the argument that if black soldiers can fight and die for their country, then they should enjoy the full benefits of citizenship under that country. (The message for us regarding DADT repeal is obvious.) Blacks feeling the same way on this point provided much of the energy and fueled much of the sense of injustice that was building up in Black America at the start of the CRM.

I look forward to the rest of your series, Alex, and I glad you didn't lay it back until February.

I would dispute that HRC has the same values as GetEqual. The primary reason a lot of us don't like or trust HRC is not because of their focus on legislation but because they threw the trans community under the bus in the 2007 effort to pass ENDA, by supporting a non-inclusive bill. That would be like if the NAACP had agreed to support a civil rights act that only covered people with skin that was lighter, and not the very dark skinned people. It was ridiculous, wrong, and showed an amazing amount of disrespect for all the work that trans people have put in on the movement throughout its history. Yes, solidarity may mean we all have a longer journey so that we can get to our destination together; that's how solidarity works.

I am looking forward to the rest of this series.

Great post. I've been meaning to read more by and/or about King...thanks for practically handing the book to me.

Regarding point 3: my understanding is that (to be extremely reductionist) what happened between then and now was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent de-Communisation (if that's a word) of modern China, which have been taken to legitimize the world domination of capitalism.
As a result, Marx is no longer a dissenting opinion who can be argued with; in a world system that for all intents and purposes is entirely capitalist, he is a heretic.

(And as A.J. said, I think it hardly went unnoticed that MLK agreed with certain things Marx said. Although he'd probably have been tarred as a communist by some people regardless.)

The co-organizers of the March on Washington were a long time member of the Socialist Party of America and a former member of the Communist Party (who, fyi, was also gay), both of who were unapologetic Marxists. King wrote an article entitled 'The Bravest Man I Know' about the then current presidential candidate for the Socialist Party (this man stood on the platform behind him during the 'I Have a Dream' speech). A. Phillip Randolph, the socialist taht co-organized the march on washington was also the organizer of the first nationally recognized black union. The former Communist went down to Birmingham to train King in effective non-violent resistence, he was sent by Randolph. Both the Socialist and Communist parties were heavily involved in the organizing of tenant farmers. The Socialist Party ran a strong anti-segregation platform for decades before the Montgomery boycotts, and help provide funds for resistence efforts (including things like bail money) and busing for marches. By lifting King up as a figurehead of the movement and ignoring his less (now) mainstream positions, the US can ignore that the civil rights movement was built up from hard leftist labour movements.

*To Alex: Have you read 'Why We Can't Wait' by King? It goes from Selma through Birmingham and is a detailed description of tactics and practicalities that often get overlooked.

"... the US can ignore that the civil rights movement was built up from hard leftist labour movements."

Yes, and so that the term socialist can retain its demonizing power, non-leftists who acknowledge this facet of the CRM use the word populist. The subtext is that "populism" is an acceptable part of the American scene, but "socialism" isn't --- even though the difference between the two is mostly just a matter of degree and transparency.

After the Financial Crisis of 2008, which hit the economy of the Western Hemisphere primarily but had global consequences, I shudder at the thought that the world has not learned its lessons, a primary one being that unbridled capitalism is not the perfect, self-regulating system that conservatives in the Western world have been claiming it to be for the last 50 years or more.

Now, esoteric phrases known previously only by economists have reached the attention of the general populace, such as "toxic debt", "systemic risk" and "perverse incentive". We have acknowledged for decades that capitalist markets can produce "bubbles" that can be dangerous to the unwary, but now we have seen ample demonstration that bad capitalist behaviors can bring entire economies, and possibly the entire world economy, to a whiplashing halt.

Although I do not expect or hope for a re-emergence of communism, there is a chance that the world will re-visit the warnings about capitalism in the writings of Marx and other non-capitalists. And Thank God (or whoever) that Joe McCarthy is dead, so that hopefully this discussion can transpire without precipitating government witch hunts.

This reminds me of my Socialist friends saying that with Obama being called a Socialist left and right, they were getting a lot more interest from people who thought "hey, that might not be such a bad thing." (This is before the Obama administration was so aggressively shooting itself in the foot all the time...)

But yeah, there is definitely a (growing?) movement for no-growth Capitalism and financial reform and the solidarity economy as well as socialism and/or communism. And in my small academic world, at least, the idea that capitalism and neoliberalism are more trouble than they're worth is pretty well entrenched, and neo-Marxism is just one of many critiques people can turn to.

This was supposed to be a reply above (re: A.J.'s post @9:22). Oops.

Thanks for the remark. I gather that in academic circles currently there is a sincere concern about sustainability. As just as the consumption of fossil fuels as our primary energy source is not permanently sustainable, there is concern that the growth requirements of capitalism may not be permanently sustainable --- we have seen it coming for quite a while, but eventually the Earth runs out of consumable resources, not the least being land, livable oceans, breathable atmosphere and petroleum.

So as traditionally American as anyone might want to be, we all have some very good reasons for re-examining other economic systems.