Above: Image by Peter Pettus – Library of Congress. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Editor’s note: This post is the first in a series of ongoing articles that will cover a five-part lecture series presented by David Domke, professor and chair for the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. The series is entitled “Marching to Selma: How MLK, LBJ and the Civil Rights Movement Changed the World.”
I was struck when I read that more than three million people took part in marches across France this past weekend after 17 people died during three days of deadly terrorist attacks in Paris. What a spectacular demonstration of solidarity and commitment to freedom of speech and democracy. An article about the marches from BBC News Europe ended with a quote from a participant, who said, “We had to get into the streets to show we are not afraid.” That quote brought to mind the riveting kick-off lecture in the five-part “Marching to Selma” series, presented on January 5 by David Domke.
Early Strategies That Led to Success
During this first lecture, entitled “Montgomery to Nashville, 1955-1961: The Rise of Nonviolence,” Domke provided an overview of the lecture series and then focused on some of the strategies that led to the successful civil rights movement and marches in the 1960s. For example, Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus on December 1,1955, was the result of years of strategic planning and organizing. Four days after Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, 50,000 African Americans walked off the buses in Montgomery, Alabama protesting the unfair regulations aimed at black people. They maintained the bus boycott for 381 days.
Jo Ann Gibson Robinson: An Unsung Hero
How did the organizers bring to life such a massive, long-lasting boycott before the advent of social media? It took years and years of planning. When the time was right for action, a largely unsung American hero, Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, active in Montgomery’s Women’s Political Council, enlisted two students and a colleague to help her mimeograph and distribute overnight 52,500 leaflets calling for the bus boycott.
The boycott was a mindboggling success. People pulled together to provide alternate transportation for each other and many simply walked during the boycott. In his lecture,
Domke referred to a quote from Robinson’s memoir: “An oppressed but brave people, whose pride and dignity rose to the occasion, conquered fear, and faced whatever perils had to be confronted. The boycott was the most beautiful memory that all of us who participated will carry to our final resting place.”
Different Time, Same Message
It was Robinson’s words that came to mind when I read the quote from the Paris marcher, “We had to get into the streets to show we are not afraid.” Separated by decades in time and an ocean, the message is the same. To quote Michael Moore, “Democracy is not a spectator sport, it’s a participatory event.”
Whether in Selma or Paris, it appears that organized, peaceful action and walking en masse remain time-honored means of working to create and protect a civil society.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of three marches for civil rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The first march, known as “Bloody Sunday,” led to a violent confrontation between peaceful civil rights marchers and armed police on a bridge in Selma. Cameras rolled as police bludgeoned and tear-gassed the unarmed demonstrators. Images of men, women, and young people crumpling under police batons, buffeted by water from fire hoses, and attacked by dogs were broadcast across the country and around the world, horrifying viewers. These marches culminated in passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
The “Marching to Selma” lecture series continues at 7 p.m. on January 19, February 2, February 16, and February 23 in Kane Hall. All funds collected for admission to the lectures go to support students in the UW Department of Communication.