On December 1st, 1955, Rosa Parks helped changed America by refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, launching the Montgomery bus boycott.
On September 17th, 2011, a group of frustrated citizens from all stripes of life took over a park on Wall Street, launching a protest that has now spread around the world, a call against the grotesque excesses of modern capitalism.
The civil rights movement, in my opinion, the greatest grassroots movement in American history. But it is amazingly, little understood by most Americans. Over the past several years, I’ve taken upon myself to read about the fascinating history. It at one makes me incredibly proud to be an American, and disgusted. The intense bravery, self-discipline, and determination of those of all colors, against the cruelties of segregation. The horrors they faced perpetuated by people in power, who used despicable tactics against fellow humans beings.
Yes, we all know about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, but how many Americans, especially of my generation, can name another civil rights hero? Two week ago we lost a great man when Reverand Fred Shuttleworth passed away – one of countless heroes of that generation. MLK didn’t do it alone, and it what amazes me the most – how so many people stood up against injustice, and how so many did it peacefully. It was a true movement. Not a perfect movement, by any means, but a true one.
The demands then were not for an excise task, but for a fundamental shift in how society treated a whole classes and races, a rethinking of human dignity. That movement, though it has accomplished a lot, is not over. It didn’t end with the Voting Rights Act.
We all like to think that we’d be on the right side of justice if put in those situations. But I truly wonder if I could match their bravery. Americans as a whole have a lot to learn from the civil rights movement, about both our potential for good, and our potential for evil.
One myth that has sustained is that of Rosa Parks. The story goes that she, one a spontaneous day, refused to give her seat, and the movement launched in response. The reality is that Rosa Parks was a leader, and that the campaign was planned well in advance, and she was the catalyst who choose to take action.
Movements don’t happen by chance – they take planning, preparation, and leadership. That is one thing we forget about the civil rights movement, which worked incredibly hard to organize in segregated communities throughout the South, where people had almost no access to information. By letting this myth survive, we diminish the hard work of thousands in this movement.
I first heard about Occupy Wall Street back in July. Adbusters, a magazine that I’ve been subscribed to, whenever I have a home, for nearly eighty years, has been posting articles on their blogs, and in the magazines, for months. Within particular circles were deep discussions about what form the movement should take – the chief inspiration being Tahrir Square in Egypt. Incremental change, the purview of President Obama’s 2008 election, wasn’t doing nearly enough when looking at the immediate problems facing humanity – climate change, inequality, and rampant capitalism. But how should such a movement be structured?
There were articles on protest tactics.
Civil disobedience vs. Violence
I was skeptical, but hopeful. In 2006, I’d joined when Adbusters had organized local action groups, in Los Angeles, only to be dissolutioned by the lack of action by the group – we could never agree on a single tactic, and most people didn’t do their fair share of the work. Why would this movement be any different, I thought? So I read the articles – in-depth, and thoughtful – but did not head down to Wall Street on September 17th.
What makes a movement? When do social factors reach a point where action is inevitable, as it was in Birmingham that day in 1955. Have we reached a tipping point today? Is change near? I’m hopeful – a realistic idealist. Occupy Wall Street has made me realize that movements can still happen in today’s world. It has also made me realize how difficult the challenge will be.
The organizers knew exactly where to take their inspiration from. The final Adbusters blog post before the protest began – “Some inspiration from Martin Luther King, Jr. for this Saturday“. There is another lesson from the civil rights movement – setbacks will happen. You’ll lose patience, and want to turn to more radical tactics. There will be discord. People will infiltrate and try to divide you. The media will ignore you when you do good, and shower you with attention when you do bad, even if just for a moment.
But the odds we are facing, while great, pale in comparison to what southern blacks faced in the 1960’s. In their resolve, we can find strength. They faced down an entire unjust system, and brought about change.
Yes we can.