Saturday, 6 July 2013

Solidarity in the face of Injustice

“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day … No the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” -Rosa Parks

This year marks a hundred years since the birth of Rosa Parks. Growing up on a small farm in Tuskegee, Alabama few could have imagined that Ms. Parks was destined to change the face of civil rights in America. But just as few could have imagined Ms. Parks would change America, few could deny she did.

When Ms. Parks was 42 years old she was working as a seamstress and was heading home on the bus after a long days’ work in Montgomery, Alabama[1].  She had seated herself near the middle of the bus, in a seat behind the 10 seats specifically reserved for white people. When the bus filled up, however, and there were no seats left, she was told to give up her seat to accommodate a white person who’d entered the bus. Ms. Parks knew that as an African American woman she was legally obligated by the segregation laws of the time (otherwise known as “Jim Crow laws”) to give up her seat. But weary of a system that promoted discrimination and the “horrible restrictiveness of Jim Crow laws”[2], she was not about to give up her seat that day.

She knew the laws were absurd and racist and morally wrong. As a volunteer with the NAACP, she knew that in the past 12-months alone three other African-American women had been arrested for the same act, but she also knew that she wasn’t going to take it anymore.

The NAACP had been looking for a plaintiff for a test case to challenge the constitutionality of the segregation laws. For a variety of reasons the NAACP determined the others would not make good plaintiffs. But Ms. Parks was different. She was well-regarded in the community and it was felt she could garner broad public support[3]. As another passenger of the Montgomery bus system is reported to have said at the time: “they’ve messed with the wrong one now.”[4] And so Ms. Parks, through a simple yet bold act of non-violent protest, did something that would inspire a sea-change in America: she refused to give up her seat.

Ms. Parks was promptly convicted of violating the segregation laws. While she appealed the conviction, a civil rights group, the Montgomery Improvement Association, organized a boycott of the bus system. A young charismatic Baptist minister was chosen to lead the Montgomery Improvement Association and organize the boycott. His name was Martin Luther King Jr. 

Roughly 75% of the people who rode the buses in Montgomery at that time were African American and the boycott thus posed a major economic threat to the bus lines. Those who saw and disagreed with the obvious injustice of the laws that made Ms. Parks’ arrest a lawful one, stood in solidarity and made the boycott a rousing success[5].

The boycott lasted 381 days until a case inspired by Ms. Parks’ persecution went before the U.S. Supreme Court where the Court upheld a District Court ruling that the “separate but equal” segregation laws were an unconstitutional violation of the due process and equal protection of the law clauses enshrined in the 14th Amendment[6]. The segregation laws were accordingly struck down and three days later, on December 20, 1956, Montgomery was ordered to have integrated buses.

The strength and courage of one woman, backed by the solidarity of those who supported her decision to reject unjust treatment, sparked a boycott and civil rights movement that altered America. When she sat down others stood up, and they brought to America a truth it had ignored for too long: there is no separate but equal, there is only equal.

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