Making History: Heroes and Organizers

The last couple of weeks, I have been reading and grading hundreds of high school essays.  The students were asked to write about a person in the past whom they would like to meet and what questions they would ask them, given the opportunity.  It was gratifying to learn that, along with the predictable smattering of sports stars and rock or hip-hop performers, a high percentage of the students of all races chose Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mrs. Rosa Parks as the person they would most want to meet.  (Some Hispanics chose César Chavez.)  Students praised those two historical individuals for their courage and stick-to-itiveness in the face of persecution, qualities many students said they would hope to emulate in their own lives.  From that, it seems schools and teachers are now doing a better job providing peace and social-justice role models for students than when I was in high school 40 years ago.  I sure can’t remember any provided to me back then.  Growing up as a white kid in the South, King and Parks were looked at by most adults around me as contemporary troublemakers.  And John Brown?  Don’t even go there!

Conservatives would be none too happy with the students’ choices of heroes and heroines, aside from a few Ayn Rands and Ronald Reagans and occasional entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.  That also seems like gaining ground.  On the other hand, based on what I read, there seems to be little or no recognition that what persons like King and Parks accomplished took lots and lots of strenuous day-in and day-out organizing work in conjunction with numerous other people and that they had whole movements behind them.  Not a single 10th grader mentioned that.  This makes me wonder just what they are learning in school about the role of individuals in how history is made.  While it is certainly a valuable life-lesson for children that they should stand up (or sit down!) for what they believe in, an even more vital lesson is that you need to work with others and get yourselves organized in order to make a real difference.

Rosa Parks was no ordinary seamstress going home after a long day’s work who was too tried to move from her seat on the segregated Montgomery, Alabama bus to accommodate a white person.  Actually, she was all of the above things — except for “ordinary.”  The real story of Rosa Parks is more complex than the myth.  But it is an even better and more educational story.  Yes, it is a story of true personal courage, but it is also a story of organizing and learning from history.

Parks was the longtime secretary of the Montgomery NAACP and its president, E.D. Nixon (who was also involved with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union that played a very considerable role in the Civil Rights struggles).  Parks and Nixon had attended discussions on non-violent civil disobedience at the Highlander School in Tennessee, a school for organizers run by socialists.  What happened on that much-celebrated day, Thursday, December 1, 1955, that led to Parks’s arrest was not a premeditated act on Parks’s part.  It seems that the myth is correct in this one respect: She acted on the spur of the moment not to give up her seat.  But Nixon and the NAACP had been looking for a good test case with which to challenge the city’s bus segregation.  The case of a 15-year-old girl arrested earlier that same year for physically resisting the police when told to give up her seat had been deemed not the best case to pursue, and Mrs. Parks as a middle-aged, church-going woman was backed up immediately in her action by Nixon and the NAACP.  Nixon was able to call on a whole network in and around Montgomery that he had built up over the years in his struggles since the 1920s against racial discrimination, including a march that he had organized to promote black voter registration.  (Unfortunately, this Father of the Civil Rights Movement would later die in relative obscurity.)

It was lots more organizing that enabled the Montgomery struggle to be ultimately victorious.  The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed to launch a boycott of the city bus system.  (African-Americans constituted 75% of the ridership, so withdrawing their participation had a great deal of economic clout.)  The 26-year-old minister Martin Luther King, Jr. was appointed president of the MIA.  His silver-tongued oratory impressed the multitudes who assembled to protest Parks’s arrest, and, as a newcomer to Montgomery, he was not associated with any of the existing black ministerial factions in town.  Though young and untested, King quickly showed his organizing as well as his speaking skills, and he was able to work and get along both with the “classes” (better-off African-Americans) and with the masses.

King also showed an ability to learn from history.  King carefully studied the two-week black bus boycott that had happened in Baton Rouge two years earlier.*  As had been done there, King and the MIA put together a sophisticated carpooling system to get blacks safely to their jobs without having to resort to the buses.  This involved coordinating several hundred vehicles and drivers each day.  To keep up morale, weekly mass meetings were held in Montgomery churches.  Rosa Parks became part of the overall organizing effort, working tirelessly alongside others to build and sustain the boycott, which ended up lasting for thirteen months.  Although not caring for the limelight, she traveled to other parts of the country to speak and raise money.

In large measure, the Montgomery bus boycott was able to endure for so long in the face of the heavy repression the white power structure brought to bear against it — harassments, arrests, bombings — because Montgomery was already home to so many skilled and committed organizers.  Along with Rosa Parks, a number of other women played important roles in the boycott.  The originator of the boycott was one — Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, a member of King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and an English professor at Alabama State College.  In 1949, Robinson had been abused by a white bus driver for sitting down unthinkingly in a whites-only bus seat.  In 1954, following the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that declared segregation in public schools illegal, Robinson as president of the Women’s Political Council (WPC), an organization of African-American professional women, after negotiations led nowhere wrote Montgomery’s mayor a letter holding out the possibility of a boycott unless the treatment of black bus riders improved.  The night of Parks’s arrest, Robinson jumped into action.  She wrote and mimeographed a leaflet calling for a Monday bus boycott and by the next day along with two of her students at the college had blanketed the black community with thousands of them.  Robinson subsequently edited the MIA’s newsletter and drove a vehicle in the car pools.  Other members of the WPC provided the MIA with their own organizing skills.

The Federal lawsuit against bus segregation in Montgomery was filed by the city’s young black lawyer Fred Gray in the names of four other assertive black women, Aurelia Browder, Claudette Colvin (the aforementioned teenager), Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith, who had in that same year of 1955 but prior to when Parks more famously acted been forced to give up their bus seats to white passengers (and in the cases of Colvin and Smith arrested for resisting).  Clearly, this was an historical moment whose time had finally come after a long build-up of anger at how African-Americans were being treated and a good measure of organizational preparation.  Rev. King said during the boycott, “If M.L. King had never been born this movement would have taken place.  I just happened to be here.  You know there comes a time when time itself is ready for change.  That time has come in Montgomery, and I had nothing to do with it.”  However valid that self-effacing statement was about his own role in the struggle, a lot of other people certainly did have something to do with it.  This was never a one-man or a one-woman show.

In her memoir, Robinson gives much credit to the black ministers and their churches for the success of the boycott, once they caught up with the black masses who had been ready to act for a long time.  Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, the black churches provided key organizing bases.  Another major leader and organizer of the Montgomery bus boycott was the young Baptist minister and Alabama State professor, Rev. Ralph David Abernathy.  King and Abernathy became close friends and worked tightly together.  To spread non-violent resistance against segregation to other parts of the South in the aftermath of the Montgomery victory, the ministerial Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) was created with King as president and Abernathy as vice-president.  Abernathy was with King in Memphis to support the garbage workers’ strike as the focus broadened to confronting the powerful about economic injustice.  After King’s assassination, he carried through with organizing the cross-racial Poor People’s Campaign which set up an encampment, Resurrection City, on the Washington Mall.

Although most whites in Montgomery in 1955 were on the other side of history, several white progressives also played valuable supporting roles during the bus boycott.  Clifford Durr, an Alabama-born attorney who had worked for the New Deal in Washington and been president of the National Lawyers Guild, gave sage legal advise.  His wife, Virginia, befriended Rosa Parks (who sewed dresses for her daughters).  The two Durrs went with E.D. Nixon to bail out Parks when she was arrested.  Robert Graetz, the white minister of Montgomery’s all-black Trinity Lutheran Church, mobilized his congregation and served as the secretary of the Montgomery Improvement Association.  Graetz’s house was bombed, as were King’s, Abernathy’s, and Nixon’s, by the KKK.  Today Rev. Graetz continues to work for racial justice in Montgomery.

Along with learning a bit about King and Parks, school kids are usually taught something about the 1963 March on Washington — although probably not that it was a march for a government jobs program for the unemployed, blacks and whites alike, and for a national minimum wage to provide a decent standard of living for all Americans as well as being a march for an end to segregation and discrimination.  They may listen to at least portions of Dr. King’s inimitable “I Have a Dream” speech.  Yet what about the role of Bayard Rustin who was the largely behind-the-scenes logistical wizard of this massive event (not to mention being a socialist and a gay man to boot)?  Do they learn anything about him or even of the existence of the thousands of others who organized the march in their churches, labor halls, and communities around the country?

Rosa Parks was honored as a hero at the March on Washington where she joined a crowd of 250,000 assembled in front of the Lincoln Memorial.  She was honored many times thereafter through her body lying in state in the U.S. Capitol in 2005.  The action the “tired seamstress” took in Montgomery in 1955 was certainly a major catalyst for change — an action inspiring other individuals who may not have realized previously that they could and should do likewise.  But it is the masses of people who really make history, once they are able to take a more organized form and become a powerful self-conscious movement — not a few iconic individuals.  The organizers are key.  Without the thousands of day-in and day-out organizers, of whom Rosa Parks was herself one, making phone calls, knocking on doors, running off leaflets, attending committee meetings, etc., etc., the Civil Rights Movement would never have been victorious.

It may be impossible to redirect education about our history totally away from the Star System.  Young people are in need of role models as they develop a sense of themselves as individuals with choices to make in how they will conduct their grown-up lives.  The teaching of history can legitimately play such a role by offering a wide range of possibilities.  (Startlingly, some students for their essays chose Hitler as the person they most wanted to meet!  Some frankly admired his power to influence others.  But that choice was usually, they said, to interrogate Hitler on why he had committed such evil deeds.)  Ideally, our schools would become centers of human liberation in the Freirean sense.  But can’t we at least in the meantime assist our students in making the acquaintance of some historical figures to emulate who were skillful organizers?  Can’t we teach kids how working collaboratively to build movements is how social change is achieved?  Or are the powers-that-be afraid of the potency of this kind of knowledge?

I was originally intending to end my screed right there.  But I’m very glad to say that I’ve found since then that my cry in the wilderness has been answered already.  The radical-educator authors of Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching (2004) know the prevailing “heroes and holidays” style of teaching about the Civil Rights Movement is highly disempowering and have stepped forward with new, better lesson plans that give students the knowledge and tools as individuals coming of age in a problematic world to work with others to transform that world for the better.  Check out their Web site.  I recommend their materials.


*  King and other organizers of the Montgomery bus boycott do not seem to have been aware that boycotts had taken place at the turn of the century in Montgomery and other southern cities when white authorities were first instituting Jim Crow seating on streetcar systems.  However, news of the 1941 Harlem bus boycott that succeeded in getting black bus drivers hired had been brought down South on a visit to Montgomery by Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell.

Jay Moore is a radical historian who lives and teaches (when he can find work) in rural Vermont.

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