FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Message of Montgomery: 60 Years Later

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a Montgomery city bus on her way home from work, and, fatigued, refused to give up her seat to a white man when the bus had filled up. Parks was arrested for violating the city’s segregation statutes, and within a few days, the African-American leaders of Montgomery responded with a highly successful boycott of the city’s bus system. In less than a year, by November 13, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal district court ruling that bus segregation violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, and within a month of that ruling, integrated buses began rolling on the streets of the city.

As we reflect on the anniversary of those events, we might well ask what messages or meanings, they carry for us 60 years later. Among many possible meanings, I would like to suggest two, and the first is simply this: nonviolence works.

During the year-long boycott and its immediate aftermath, white supremacists committed numerous acts of violence against the boycotters and their leaders. They bombed the home of Martin Luther King, Jr., the boycott’s leader, almost killing his wife and child. They continued perpetrating violence after the Supreme Court handed down its ruling, firing on buses, bombing churches, and other leaders’ homes, and beating up riders. Yet the boycotters never retaliated violently. As a result, one of the city’s most important legal arguments against bus integration – that it would lead to interracial violence – collapsed during the court proceedings.

Equally important, the boycotters’ self-discipline kept public awareness sharply focused on the injustices of segregation, winning support not only among northern whites but also among many white people in the south. To maintain their discipline, the boycotters showed considerable courage, putting the lie to the claim that nonviolence was for the weak. Many, if not most, of these nonviolent warriors, possessed a tool not available to most conventional soldiers: the ability to distinguish between the perpetrator of injustice and the injustice itself. This distinction, a key principle of nonviolence taught by Dr. King and his fellow leaders, allowed the boycotters to engage their opponents without demonizing or dehumanizing them. The protestors understood that the defeat of bus segregation was a victory for all of Montgomery, not a defeat of white people. This understanding imbued them with an empowering identity as change agents on behalf of human dignity and democratic values. Today we can see similar qualities on the part of the University of Missouri students who displayed discipline, perseverance, and courage in protesting the oppressive racism at their university – and raising consciousness enough that a chancellor and university president had to resign.

These examples lead me to a second message I’d like to suggest when reflecting on the long-ago events in Montgomery. This message, too, is straightforward: that nonviolence is not only a body of strategies (boycotts, sit-ins, hunger strikes) for resisting oppression; it is also a philosophy, or world-view, that represents the sanest, most viable alternative to ever-escalating cycles of violence, whether those cycles are manifested in calls for guns in schools or in the bellicosity and fear-mongering that follow the kinds of terrorist attacks inflicted on Paris and other cities.

Almost 12 years after the arrest of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King appeared in New York’s Riverside Church to break his silence and proclaim his opposition to the Vietnam War. King was subsequently assailed not only by his opponents but also by many of his allies who saw his anti-war position as deflecting much-needed energy from the civil rights movement. In his address that day, King not only showed the logical connections between opposition to the war and the struggle for justice; he also offered a penetrating analysis of the global choices facing the world’s pre-eminent military and economic power. King condemned the anti-revolutionary direction of American foreign policy, pointedly criticizing the nation’s support of oppressive regimes in its destructive quest for profit. And he called for a “genuine revolution of values,” declaring that, “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”

Exactly one year after the Riverside Church address, King was felled by an assassin’s bullet. The choices he articulated in that address still vex us today. The eloquence with which he spoke made it clear that the road from Montgomery ran straight to the Riverside Church, underscoring the fact that nonviolence and the quest for justice are inextricably linked. In 1958, two years after the boycott, King had written, “In a day when Sputniks and Explorers dash through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, nobody can win a war. Today the choice is no longer between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”

Sixty years later, this message from Montgomery may resound more urgently than ever before.

More articles by:

Andrew Moss is an emeritus professor from the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he taught a course, “War and Peace in Literature,” for 10 years.

Weekend Edition
February 15, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Matthew Hoh
Time for Peace in Afghanistan and an End to the Lies
Chris Floyd
Pence and the Benjamins: An Eternity of Anti-Semitism
Rob Urie
The Green New Deal, Capitalism and the State
Jim Kavanagh
The Siege of Venezuela and the Travails of Empire
Paul Street
Someone Needs to Teach These As$#oles a Lesson
Andrew Levine
World Historical Donald: Unwitting and Unwilling Author of The Green New Deal
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Third Rail-Roaded
Eric Draitser
Impacts of Exploding US Oil Production on Climate and Foreign Policy
Ron Jacobs
Maduro, Guaidó and American Exceptionalism
John Laforge
Nuclear Power Can’t Survive, Much Less Slow Climate Disruption
Joyce Nelson
Venezuela & The Mighty Wurlitzer
Jonathan Cook
In Hebron, Israel Removes the Last Restraint on Its Settlers’ Reign of Terror
Ramzy Baroud
Enough Western Meddling and Interventions: Let the Venezuelan People Decide
Robert Fantina
Congress, Israel and the Politics of “Righteous Indignation”
Dave Lindorff
Using Students, Teachers, Journalists and other Professionals as Spies Puts Everyone in Jeopardy
Kathy Kelly
What it Really Takes to Secure Peace in Afghanistan
Brian Cloughley
In Libya, “We Came, We Saw, He Died.” Now, Maduro?
Nicky Reid
The Councils Before Maduro!
Gary Leupp
“It’s All About the Benjamins, Baby”
Jon Rynn
What a Green New Deal Should Look Like: Filling in the Details
David Swanson
Will the U.S. Senate Let the People of Yemen Live?
Dana E. Abizaid
On Candace Owens’s Praise of Hitler
Raouf Halaby
‘Tiz Kosher for Elected Jewish U.S. Officials to Malign
Rev. William Alberts
Trump’s Deceitful God-Talk at the Annual National Prayer Breakfast
W. T. Whitney
Caribbean Crosswinds: Revolutionary Turmoil and Social Change 
ADRIAN KUZMINSKI
Avoiding Authoritarian Socialism
Howard Lisnoff
Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Anti-immigrant Hate
Ralph Nader
The Realized Temptations of NPR and PBS
Cindy Garcia
Trump Pledged to Protect Families, Then He Deported My Husband
Thomas Knapp
Judicial Secrecy: Where Justice Goes to Die
Louis Proyect
The Revolutionary Films of Raymundo Gleyzer
Sarah Anderson
If You Hate Campaign Season, Blame Money in Politics
Victor Grossman
Contrary Creatures
Tamara Pearson
Children Battling Unhealthy Body Images Need a Different Narrative About Beauty
Peter Knutson
The Salmon Wars in the Pacific Northwest: Banning the Rough Customer
Binoy Kampmark
Means of Control: Russia’s Attempt to Hive Off the Internet
Robert Koehler
The Music That’s in All of Us
Norah Vawter
The Kids Might Save Us
Tracey L. Rogers
Freedom for All Begins With Freedom for the Most Marginalized
Paul Armentano
Marijuana Can Help Fight Opioid Abuse
Tom Clifford
Britain’s Return to the South China Sea
Graham Peebles
Young People Lead the Charge to Change the World
Matthew Stevenson
A Pacific Odyssey: Around General MacArthur’s Manila Stage Set
B. R. Gowani
Starbucks Guy Comes Out to Preserve Billionaire Species
David Yearsley
Bogart Weather
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail