I’ve been reflecting on our history lately. I’ve always known Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks as peaceful protesters who created necessary change. What they did and why they did it seems like common sense now and we praise them for creating that change...peacefully. But when I look back on that time and put myself in that space, I have to realize the general population didn’t accept their “peaceful protests” back then...nor were their “peaceful protests” peaceful. In fact, the general population was just as angry at them then as so many are at Colin Kaepernick and the rest of us now. Additionally, the protests back then had residual violence and destruction as well, just as they do today.
In case we’ve forgotten (or didn’t know), Rosa Parks did not sit down on the bus because she was tired. She was tired of her people being oppressed. She intentionally stayed seated, despite angry people all around her.
Seriously...imagine that bus. The bus is full and a White man is standing. Rosa Parks is told to get up so the White man can sit, because that is the law and that is what is expected. And Rosa Parks says, “I’m not in the White section.” Imagine the looks she must have gotten. Imagine the outrage and incredulity from the passengers when a young Black woman had the audacity to speak that way to the driver! Imagine the driver asserting his power, threatening to call the police to have her removed, threatening to arrest her himself, and she replied, “Do what you have to do,” and continued to stay seated until the Montgomery police arrived to forcibly remove her from her seat.
From a safe distance, we can now reflect and romanticize her peaceful protest (which it was), but the truth of the matter is they did not see it as peaceful then. Instead of seeing it as an equal rights issue, they saw her protest as a slight against them and, if listened to, felt it would take something away from them. So they enforced “law and order”...like they are doing today.
Her resistance helped start a bus boycott that lasted for 381 days and disrupted an entire economic system, which made people even more angry. (People really don’t like their pocketbooks being messed with.)
Just because she was doing what we now think of as a very right thing didn’t mean that everyone all of a sudden got on board. Rosa Parks lost her job after her peaceful protest and her husband was fired from his job as well. It got so rough that they eventually had to leave Montgomery and move north in order to start over.
Let me pause here to remind us all of Colin Kaepernick. Four years ago, he quietly knelt during a football game because he, too, was tired; tired of police brutality toward Black men. His resistance wasn’t even breaking a law, but people made it seem like it was.
Like Parks, he endured the looks, the anger, and the outrage while he continued to kneel and he, too, lost his job because of his audacious action. Also like Parks, Kaepernick’s action called attention to an issue, but his one action did not result in the desired change. Since it did not, we have had four years of intensifying protests that are causing some people to be extremely uncomfortable.
I’ve seen people on my Facebook feed longing for the peacefulness of Dr. King, but it seems we also need to be reminded of his stance on things as well. In his Mountaintop speech in 1968, the night before he was murdered, Dr. King talked about how the protests back then brought with them “a little violence” and he lamented the fact that the press highlighted the violence more than the many injustices people were facing.
In this same speech, he was preparing people to march and protest for equal pay and more protections for sanitation workers who were literally being eaten alive by malfunctioning trash trucks. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t bother listening to the detractors who tried to convince him that equality is what it is. Instead, to all of us he asked, “The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ That’s the question.”
I see many more people kneeling these days. I find it almost humorous, considering that four years ago kneeling was considered the ultimate form of treason. However, though the action of kneeling has become much more acceptable, what Colin Kaepernick took a knee for has still not changed. Nearly every day, we are introduced to a new video of yet another Black man who was shot or asphyxiated by a police officer. Today, I can sit in my comfortable White privilege or I can revisit a paraphrased form of Dr. King’s question: “The question is not, ‘If I ally with Black people to stop police brutality, what will happen to me?’ but instead, ‘If I do not ally with Black people to stop police brutality, what will happen to them?’ That’s the question.’
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. … One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr. Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963