Citizen Action Monitor

Building a Social Movement: What can the African-American Civil Rights Movement teach us? Pt 3: Rosa Parks sits down

And a massive nonviolent campaign strategy takes root

No 432 Posted by fw, March 9, 2012

“This is what I wanted to know: when and how would we ever determine our rights as human beings? . . . It just happened that the driver made a demand and I just didn’t feel like obeying his demand. He called a policeman and I was arrested and placed in jail . . .”Rosa Parks

Back on September 11, 2011, I began what was intended to be a series of posts on the African-American Civil Rights Movement as seen through the eyes of the American historian and political activist, Howard Zinn, featured in Chapter 6 – “Or Does it Explode” – of his book, The Twentieth Century: A People’s History (2003).

The purpose of this series is to address a knowledge gap that various leftist groups seem to have in translating their “talk” about building a social movement into “effective action” towards this end.  My presumption is that a review of the successes of past social movements might help contemporary activists advance their movement-building campaigns.

Part 1, Birth Pains, my introduction to the series, sampled a selection of passages reflecting the early 1920s-30s stirrings of what is now popularly known as the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Wikipedia dates the early history of the movement from 1896-1954Eight best-practice teachings deriving from these selected passages were presented in Part 1.

Part 2, Demands of democracy, also presented selected passages, and teachings, from Zinn’s Chapter 6, covering the period from the 1940s through the early ’50s (pages 188-191). Five best-practice teachings extracted from the passages were shared. I recommend these and the teachings from part 1 to your attention.


This post, Part 3, reviews selected passages from Zinn’s writings from the 1940s through the early ’50s.

Early gains turned out to be empty — What to others seemed rapid progress to blacks was apparently not enough. In the early 1960s black people rose in rebellion all over the south. And in the late 1960s they were engaging in wild insurrection in a hundred northern cities. It was all a surprise to those without that deep memory of slavery, that everyday presence of humiliation, registered in the poetry, the music, the occasional outbursts of anger, the more frequent sullen silences. Part of that memory was of words uttered, laws passed, decisions made, which turned out to be meaningless. / p. 191

Trigger events of 1955 — For such a people, with such a memory, and such daily recapitulation of history, revolt was always minutes away, in a timing mechanism which no one had set, but which might go off with some unpredictable set of events. Those events came, at the end of 1955, in the capital city of Alabama – Montgomery. /p. 191

Rosa Parks sits down

Rosa Parks sits downMrs Rosa Parks, a forty-three-year-old seamstress, explained why she refused to obey the Montgomery law providing for segregation on city buses, why she decided to sit down in the “white” section of the bus:

Well, in the first place, I had been working all day on the job. I was quite tired after spending a full day working. I handle and work on clothing that white people wear. That didn’t come in my mind but this is what I wanted to know: when and how would we ever determine our rights as human beings? . . . It just happened that the driver made a demand and I just didn’t feel like obeying his demand. He called a policeman and I was arrested and placed in jail. . . . / p. 191

Bus boycott leads to end of bus segregation — Montgomery blacks called a mass meeting. They voted to boycott all city buses. Car pools were organized to take Negroes to work; most people walked. The city retaliated by indicting one hundred leaders of the boycott, and sent many to jail. White segregationists turned to violence. Bombs exploded in four Negro churches. A shotgun blast was fired through the front door of the home of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, the twenty-seven-year-old Atlanta-born minister who was one of the leaders of the boycott. King’s home was bombed. But the black people of Montgomery persisted, and in November 1956, the Supreme Court outlawed segregation on the local bus lines. /p. 192

Massive nonviolent campaign strategy takes root — Montgomery was the beginning. It forecast the style and mood of the vast protest movement that would sweep the South in the next ten years: emotional church meetings, Christian hymns adapted to current battles, references to lost American ideals, the commitment to nonviolence, the willingness to struggle and sacrifice. A New York Times reporter described a mass meeting in Montgomery during the boycott:

One after the other, indicted Negro leaders took the rostrum in a crowded Baptist church tonight to urge their followers to shun the city’s buses and “walk with God.” /p. 192

More than two thousand Negroes filed to church from basement to balcony and overflowed in the street. They chanted and sang, they shouted and prayed; they collapsed in the aisles and they sweltered in eighty-five degree heat. They pledged themselves again and again to “passive resistance.” Under this banner they have carried on for eighty days a stubborn boycott of the city’s buses. /p. 192

Martin Luther King at that meeting gave a preview of the oratory that would soon inspire millions of people to demand racial justice. He said the protest was not merely over buses but over things that “go deep down into the archives of history.” He said:

We have known humiliation, we have known abusive language, we have been plunged into the abyss of oppression. And we decided to raise up only with the weapon of protest. /p. 192

If we are arrested every day, if we are exploited every day, if we are trampled on every day, don’t ever let anyone pull you so low as to hate them. We must use the weapon of love. We must have compassion and understanding for those who hate us. We must realize so many people are taught to hate us that they are not totally responsible for their hate. But we stand in life at midnight, we are always on the threshold of a new dawn. /p. 192-93



  1. Revolt is always just a minute away for a long-oppressed, humiliated, persecuted and exploited minority.
  2. Sometimes all it takes is the courageous, spontaneous, symbolic act of one person to ignite the revolt.
  3. One person to ignite the revolt, and others to recognize the symbolic value of the act as an opportunity to organize members of the local community.
  4. And the good fortune to a have a cohesive religious network to facilitate and expedite movement building.
  5. And the wisdom of the leadership to recognize the potential power and effectiveness of a boycott as a strategic tool of economic counterpower.
  6. And the wisdom to seize on the power of love and passive nonviolence as a bedrock principle of the movement.
  7. Don’t overlook the unifying emotional counterpower of communal song, chanting, shouting and prayer.
  8. This above all else, there must emerge from the ranks an inspirational, articulate speaker to rally the masses in building a national counterpower campaign.
  9. And the tacit understanding that a multifaceted campaign is potentially more effective than a one-dimensional effort.


Can past social movements inform current campaigns? Absolutely, says Tim Gee in “Counterpower: Making Change Happen” “Counterpower’s mission is to map political movements and understand how change happens, to ‘delve into the archive of history and try to learn from movements past to understand better what makes a campaign successful.’ 

Fair Use Notice: This blog, Citizen Action Monitor, may contain copyrighted material that may not have been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Such material, published without profit, is made available for educational purposes, to advance understanding of human rights, democracy, scientific, moral, ethical, and social justice issues. It is published in accordance with the provisions of the 2004 Supreme Court of Canada ruling and its six principle criteria for evaluating fair dealing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: