Rosa Parks was one of the most iconic figures of the U.S. civil rights movement. Her courage has rightfully marked her as one of the foremost heroes of not just of the civil rights movement, but of the 20th Century itself.
A question I always asked myself as a teenager was that surely she was not the only person to refuse to give up their seat and why did not a large number of these boycotts happen? The answer is fascinating, and only serves to increase my passion for Rosa Parks’ story.
In campaigning circles, the Montgomery Bus Boycott is what is known as a ‘trigger event’, where a particular action is used to set off exponential growth of a movement.
These events are not easy to successfully execute; it requires a tremendous amount of preparation and timing is key.
Rosa Parks was not just a regular member of the public, as sometimes her myth makes her out to be. She was the secretary for the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and had already taken part in national campaigns. Furthermore, earlier in that year, Rosa had completed a course on race relations that contained a module advocating civil-disobedience.
A lot of work went in behind the scenes of the Bus Boycott by the local NAACP, particularly under the leadership of Edgar Daniel Nixon. Two major foundations are needed for trigger events to succeed and Nixon had cemented both of them.
Large and successful campaigns do not happen in isolation nor by the actions of one person. They are reliant on an organised network of community groups that can be called to rally around a particular cause. This is achieved by allying various community ‘gatekeepers’ who give you access to substantial audiences. With Nixon, he had managed to secure the support of local high-profile church ministers who were very influential with large local congregations.
I often see community organising as a gearbox in a car. A huge, powerful engine needs small cogs applied at the right time to the machinery to get it from 0 – 100mph. You can build a huge engine, but mistiming the engagement of those cogs when you get going? Everything will stall.
Big enough to matter, small enough to win is the key to success with any campaign. The institutional racism in Alabama in the early 1950s was rampant, causing untold daily misery to the black community.
The boycott was only originally meant to be a short campaign, but the organisers proved so successful in choosing a target that looked certain to cave in, given the vast proportional of black bus users and, most importantly, the right person.
In fact, Rosa Parks was the third candidate chosen to lead the Boycott. Her arrest gave the green light for the rest of the campaign machine to kick into action.
The lesson? Large and successful social movements do not just happen organically. They take large amount skill and planning to pull off. There is far more to Rosa Parks’ story than just a woman who refused to give up her seat – and the more you learn about it, the more fascination and inspirational she becomes.
Owen Jones leads HOPE not hate Charitable Trust’s Education and Training Unit