Social change can be and usually is a slow grueling process. I am also always reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. saying, in December 1956, after the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, that “the arc of the moral universe, although long, is bending toward justice.” Historically, in the United States, regarding the moral universe bending toward justice, invariably it is the courageous stance of the Black community that has taken the lead in social change toward justice and other groups have then followed. It is also true that social change does not happen in a vacuum. You need a model. The Black community also explicitly offered a powerful model of resistance for social change to virtually every other group in America to address their own concerns, be it against discriminatory policies, collective anti-war expressions or other unjust laws and issues that people have wanted to eradicate or change.
Being fed up with the oppression of the Jim Crow unjust state and local laws that imposed racial segregation across the South, the model for change in the 1950s was that of the impressive non-violent resistance of India’s Mahatma Gandhi. King and others made this model explicitly visible in the United States and it is now ingrained in our consciousness. The Black community introduced it full-throttle into the American scene when, in December 1955, the NAACP secretary Rosa Parks resisted by choosing to sit wherever she wanted on the bus in Montgomery. Her choice was the 5th row of the bus, which was the “white” area. This lone action by Parks was in violation of the law and by doing so she launched a revolution.
And for many of us who are white, such as me, we will be eternally grateful to Rosa Parks. Civil rights attorney J.L. Chestnut says that when Rosa Parks sat down she helped all of us to stand. Indeed, she helped launch a movement for the rights of so many in the country and she did this but one year after Joe McCarthy was condemned for spewing his anti-communist hatred in the halls of the U.S. Senate. Yet the anti-communist sentiments continued to prevail making organizing against oppression all the more complex and difficult. A pale beyond Jim Crow had enveloped the nation. Nevertheless, Mrs. Parks acted in spite of that!
In fact, Rosa Parks and others in Montgomery taught the nation about the tactics of non-violent resistance against injustice and how to do it in the courts, on the streets and by going to jail if necessary. This was followed by Black activist initiatives, along with some white allies, in Greensboro, Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery, Albany, Atlanta, everywhere in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South. Americans had witnessed and learned from the Black community about the methods for demanding justice and challenging unjust laws, unjust policies and unjust actions by the State.
Who is Heather Gray?
Heather Gray has a history of activism on civil and human rights for decades in the southern region of the United States as well as nationally and internationally. She expresses this background and activism in her articles and on the radio. She is producer of “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta’s 89.3FM community radio station.