Rooted in Struggle: Remembering the Past and Looking Towards the Future
by Crystal McMillan on Thursday, December 10, 2009
BRU celebrates 54th anniversary of Montgomery bus Boycotts
On December 1st, we met to celebrate the 54th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The celebration combined education about famous historical figures and member's personal stories to give us all a picture of the past struggle for Civil Rights and the obstacles we still have to overcome.
We actually began the celebration a week before the anniversary with a screening of the HBO film "Boycott". The movie is a dramatization of the beginning of the Boycott and the journey of Martin Luther King Jr. from a simple pastor to a person called to serve a larger community. After we watched the film, we discussed the historical context and also how the drama had given us a new perspective on a familiar story.
I had always seen the Civil Rights movement as a single voiced non-violent movement. What the movie emphasized was how diverse the voices that began the movement were. While Martin Luther King Jr. and other's called for non-violence, many of the early advocates debated the effectiveness of the approach. History has shown that even King came to question how far a true, radical restructuring of the social landscape could go without violent upheaval.
I was impressed by the way the movie highlighted the contributions of the other members of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and how, contrary to popular myth, the Boycott was not the work of a single individual, but was brought about by the will and sacrifice of a whole community. The movie also showed the large part that women played in the movement. It was no accident that Rosa Parks was chosen as the symbol for change. Women of color were a vital part of the community's workforce. The potential loss of their labor forced the white community to deal with the immediate impact of the boycott.
The movie also discussed how, despite efforts by the white majority, the news about the Boycott spread beyond Montgomery. This came into even more focus when we met a week later for the anniversary of this historic event. Manuel passed out printed slips of paper, without telling us what was on them, and we broke into groups to discuss what we had read.
The groups were given information about some of the lesser known pioneers of the Civil Rights movement, such as E.D. Nixon, the labor activist who bailed out Rosa Parks, and also information about how the Montgomery Boycott had acted as inspiration for groups in places like Central America and South Africa. We also learned how Rosa Parks was by far not the first woman arrested for refusing to give up her seat; she was just the catalyst after a long history of oppression and segregation.
As we discussed the information, I was struck by the wide variety of people in the room. There were Black people who had lived in the South at the time of the original boycott as well as Central Americans and Mexicans - born inside and outside US borders, and Koreans some of who had heard about the boycott through newspapers and others not at all. The group included Black and Latino youth who were discussing and learning about the time period their grandparents and parents had lived through.
In my group we discussed the history of the first Black labor unions and the groundwork for civil disobedience that was laid down by the women's suffrage movement. We talked together with the others about how the Civil Rights movement had spread from the American South to give hope and inspiration to oppressed workers all over the world. Then we spoke together about how the gains of the Civil Rights movement had been slowly chipped away, and how a movement that once spoken with a single voice had fractured into diffused voices and goals.
I started this by saying we were remembering the past and looking towards the future. That is true. We met to celebrate what the will and determination of people pushed to the breaking point were able to accomplish and we used that as an example and as an inspiration to keep going forward in our own struggle for economic justice and quality of life. We finished off the celebration by gathering together and shouting words of defiance, hope and rededication.
The Montgomery Boycott wasn't the first blow struck against oppression, but before that rarely had there been such a clear, well-defined movement in the struggle that reached beyond a single community or nation. As we spoke of the past, we also planned for the future. How could I use this example to help shape what I will do for our movement in the future? In a time of global warming, conservative backlash, and economic upheaval, how will I use this example to fuel my fire?
To use the example of the Boycott, we have to move forward with determination and harness the will of the people. Just as they did in Montgomery, we have to empower the oppressed peoples. We gather information and spread the word about the acts of the government and backroom politics. We shine a light on policies and practices that are stripping away our Civil Rights and gutting the power of our communities. We act out and don't allow unfair practices to go unchallenged. We weave the tapestry of a multi racial, multi lingual, and diverse movement into a call for true social change.
We will come together to stop the 2010 fare increase. We will use the Clean Air and Economic Justice plan to gain true mobility and a healthy environment. We will build an empowered and creative movement that can shape the Long Range Transportation Plan into a document that doesn't use fare increases and service cuts to fund our transit system. We will use this time of upheaval to unseat the unfair practices and policies that are eroding our Civil Rights. It all begins now with us, rooted in the struggles of the past and growing into the promise of the future.