[November 13th marked the 65th anniversary of a key moment in the unfolding history of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of layers to that Civil Rights Movement activism, leading up to this weekend post on 21st century legacies and echoes!]
On three lessons from Montgomery for our own moment.
1) Boycotts: It seems to me that in recent years boycotts have often come to feel like an expression of overblown consumer anger for unnecessary or at least silly reasons—people burning all their Nike gear in response to the Colin Kaepernick ad campaign, to cite just one example. But while any form of protest and activism can have its more extreme and/or unhelpful versions, those are not in any way a reason to dismiss the entire concept. And at their best, boycotts offer a crucial means through which communities can use the power of the pocketbook to highlight, challenge, and hopefully counter failures and injustices, not just from corporations but for the systems that they’re part of. Montgomery exemplifies those possibilities and should inspire us to keep using boycotts when and how we can.
2) Domestic Terrorism: I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t know about the white supremacist campaign of sniping/shootings against the newly integrated buses in December 1956 (which I discussed at greater length in Friday’s post), but I also believe that that shame is very much all of ours. Virtually all of the white supremacist domestic terrorism that has marred the last two centuries of American life (yes, going back well before the Civil War) remains entirely absent from our collective memories and narratives. Indeed, I can think of few ironies more ironic than the fact that nearly all of American society for the last two decades has been influenced by fears and narratives around “terrorism,” yet we apparently remain almost entirely unable to confront the reality that it is white supremacist domestic terrorism which has always been, and remains to this day, the most destructive form.
3) Education: Earlier this month I was one of many folks who wrote about the ongoing debates around racism and anti-racism, “Critical Race Theory,” and American education (for many of the other great pieces and voices, see this Twitter thread). There are various factors in that current debate, including the last two years’ school closures and the related question of parental involvement in education. But it’s impossible to separate that debate from the argument, which we’ve seen from numerous state legislatures among other quarters, that teaching histories of race and racism is somehow destructive or even un-American. I hope it goes without saying that I could not possibly disagree more, and I would say Montgomery provides a perfect case in two counterpoints: that the histories of racism and racist violence on the one hand and inspiring alternatives and activisms on the other are at the heart of American history and of how and what we should teach, learn, remember, and engage if we have any chance of moving forward together.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think?