Effecting Change: Nonviolent Protests Then and Now

shuffnlExactly sixty years ago today, a 42-year-old African-American woman paved the way and enlightened a nation, providing a textbook example on the effectiveness of nonviolent civil disobedience. Rosa Parks’ respectful refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger served as a lightning rod for the Civil Rights Movement in America.

Parks did so without anger, and that action laid the groundwork for peaceful disobedience, resulting in a citywide bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. At the time, the majority of passengers using public transit in Montgomery were African-American. The boycott hit the bus company right in the pocketbook, and that financial impact was so deep that company officials quickly recognized a policy of continued segregated seating would not bode well for their bottom line. As a result, the long-standing discriminatory practice of forcing blacks to sit in the back of the bus was abolished.

While perhaps it would have been best that the company rejected its policy on the grounds that it was the right thing to do, the end result accomplished its mission: that African-American bus passengers, like anyone else who paid their fare, had a right to sit anywhere they chose.

RosaparksThe success of the Montgomery bus boycott remains a shining example and model for what can be achieved through nonviolent activism.

Six decades later, the University of Missouri Tigers football team flexed its muscles when it decided to boycott future games and practices until MU system President Tim Wolfe stepped down or was removed from office over allegations that he failed to address continuing charges of racism and discrimination in the four-school system. The players huddled around graduate student Jonathan Butler, who began a hunger strike on November 2, fed up that Mizzou administrators refused to listen and respond to complaints about race relations from African-American students. The football players only became involved after a “chance encounter,” when one of them came upon Butler nearly a week after his pledge to stop eating.

Butler chose a nonviolent path to effect change, undoubtedly inspired by the efforts of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It wasn’t Butler’s plan to join forces with the football team to heighten awareness over this issue. It just happened. Somehow, Butler’s action struck a chord with players, who couldn’t simply walk away and return to business as usual on the football field. They opted for a boycott, realizing that they might be placing their scholarships and their futures at risk.

At first, only a few players locked arms around this protest, but the rest of the team, including Head Coach Gary Pinkel, followed. They based their decision on moral grounds; however, as in the Montgomery bus boycott, the financial implications were huge. Mizzou was set to play Brigham Young University on November 14. The University of Missouri stood to lose $1 million if the Tigers forfeited that game. Within just a few days of the announced boycott, MU President Tim Wolfe resigned immediately and Mizzou Chancellor R. Bowen Loften announced he would step down as well.

The historic move came swiftly, despite years of cries that fell on deaf ears and incidents that failed to move school officials to act. It was yet another defining moment in the determined struggle for civil rights in the U.S. This may well be the most compelling example of nonviolent direction action in recent memory and its significance should not be minimized.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.” It is strikingly clear that protestors at the University of Missouri focused their efforts with that in mind. The results speak for themselves. Future freedom fighters and soldiers battling for social justice could learn a lesson from those MU students, who spoke out, stopped eating and refused to play, while never invoking violence to make their point… a fitting salute to the unfinished business of “making justice for all” a reality.