The Montgomery Bus Boycott Master Class

I just finished reading Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s memoir of the 1955-1956 Montgomery bus boycott, which is typically thought of as the first major campaign of the civil rights movement. It’s an oversight in my education that I hadn’t read it before – particularly for someone who studies nonviolent resistance. As when, several years ago, I read David Garrow’s masterful history of the civil rights movement Bearing the Cross, I was struck by the many tactical and strategic lessons for nonviolent action that can be picked up from the civil rights movement, and how deftly leaders like MLK and strategists like Bayard Rustin or James Lawson handled the challenges that many movements face. A few things that stood out to me:

Trying to define a movement as “spontaneous” or “planned” is not useful. The popular narrative about the Montgomery bus boycott tends to paint it as spontaneous; a direct reaction to Rosa Parks’ arrest. Similarly, Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat tends to be described, including by President Obama, as a spontaneous act in the moment. Others emphasize Parks’ past training in nonviolent action, the NAACP’s desire to have a test case to launch a legal challenge to Montgomery’s segregation laws, and prior organizing efforts to tell a story about how movements don’t happen spontaneously but instead are the result of long years of planning and organizing and careful framing in the moment. Neither story really captures the events as King describes them. Rosa Parks wasn’t an NAACP plant, and the reactions to her arrest were genuine and spontaneous. But the boycott was built on prior organizing, and relied on a civil society infrastructure (mostly around Black churches) to move it forward. So it’s not really accurate to describe it as either spontaneous or planned – there were elements of both, obscuring either one of which significantly limits our understanding of how events unfolded.

Dialogue, Negotiation, and Mediation skills are crucial. In all honesty, I didn’t think much about negotiation as part of nonviolent resistance until coming to work for USIP, where the connection between the two is a central part of our work. But in reading this detailed account of a single nonviolent action campaign, you can’t escape how important skillful negotiation tied with pressure from nonviolent action was. The tricks used to undermine meaningful inclusion that my colleague Esra Cuhadar has written about were on full display – attempts to peel off particular leaders through offering private incentives, foot-dragging, and picking and choosing who you negotiate with and then claiming to have reached an agreement with those non-representative parties. The old trick of “call off the protests and then we’ll talk” was also tried, and fortunately rejected by the MLK and the other leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association.

The Centrality of Dignity. Too much of the discourse on civil resistance (my own work included) has focused on the rational instrumental benefits of nonviolent action as a way of motivating people to participate. But, as experimental evidence shows, hearing about the ways that nonviolent action is better able to lead to success is unlikely to be a powerful motivator on its own. MLK describes a strong rational case for why the boycott made strategic sense. He and the other leaders were certainly thinking about the strategic element in the tactics they selected and how they went about it. But much more important in how MLK talks about the motives and impact of the boycott was an opportunity to express agency, and to regain a sense of dignity. As he writes in the last chapter of the book:

Once plagued with a tragic sense of inferiority resulting from the crippling effects of slavery and segregation, the Negro has now been driven to re-evaluate himself. He is beginning to feel that he is somebody…

This growing self-respect has inspired the Negro with a new determination to struggle and sacrifice until first-class citizenship becomes a reality. This is the true meaning of the Montgomery story.

Stride Toward Freedom, p. 183

The motivation to participate in the boycott was much less about a rational calculus then it was about how participation gave this sense of “being somebody.” If we downplay these psychological benefits that come from participation in nonviolent action we’re likely to completely miss the mark on why people actually do something that’s so costly to them. If there’s a cost-benefit calculation, it’s a cost-benefit calculation that has much more to do with the subjective costs that come from “living the lie” and the sense of personal worth and dignity that comes from “living in truth.”

The Arc of the Moral Universe doesn’t bend itself. One of MLK’s most famous quotes is “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” which often gets interpreted as a bit of a Pollyannaish “everything will work out in the end” assumption. It’s a phrase that MLK used frequently, including in Stride Toward Freedom, but where the context makes clear that the meaning of the quote is very different from the optimism of an inevitable move toward justice that it’s painted as. It’s not a blind optimism but a Kierkegaardian “leap of faith” that makes a conscious choice to hold onto something even when it may not make sense in the moment to do so. And it should certainly not be interpreted as meaning that we can sit back and wait for things to get better, as they inevitably will. As MLK says in the last chapter of the book:

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals. Without persistent effort, time itself becomes an ally of the insurgent and primitive forces of irrational emotionalism and social destruction.

Stride Toward Freedom, p. 191

Faith in the moral arc of the universe is intended to be a balm and source of confidence during the struggle, not a justification to sit the struggle out. If it’s going to be faith, it has to be real faith, not cheap faith. It has to be faith in the streets, not faith in an armchair.

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