Dr King, Claudette Colvin, Montgomery and Boycotts

The boycott movement was a key aspect of the Civil Rights Movement. In particular the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, made possible by the courage of Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks, who refused to surrender their seats to white males, was a landmark event in the road for freedom. The boycott of the Montgomery bus system  through the actions of the Montgomery Improvement Association was the opening salvo of the Civil Rights movement. It was in Montgomery where the first significant action took place in the civil-disobedience career of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. He was still working on his Ph.D. dissertation from Boston University when the boycott began.

  • ¬† Professor Jo Ann Robinson

On this national holiday to honour Dr Martin Luther King, Jr it is important to recognise that boycotts played a major role in the economic weaponry used by the advocates of ending American apartheid. While there maybe differences in boycotting businesses, public-sector agencies and off-shore companies from academic institutions, the history of the boycott in American history has advanced the cause of social justice. One could argue that a boycott of a business that has a history of racism or homophobia, damages those innocent employees of the company who are not complicit. One could argue that sanctions, which are really a boycott, of apartheid South Africa, harmed those who lost jobs, or those who could not compete in international athletic events. One has to take a holistic approach and ask whether a boycott, while perhaps not entirely victimless in its ramifications for the innocent (economic collateral damage), serve a greater good and justify its implementation?

Claudette Colvin, first to resist segregation of Montgomery public transportation

I would argue there is a greater ambiguity even in boycotts of academic institutions than merely asserting they eviscerate academic freedom. While I have previously expressed my general opposition to such actions, because of my mission of defending academic freedom, I do believe it is worthy to pause and ask: Is a boycott to end racism either in the United States or in the Middle East justified despite some moral ambiguity on the means? Are the ends as seen in Montgomery, that launched the contemporary civil rights movement, or the ends to free an oppressed people in Gaza and the West Bank noble enough to justify boycotts? I think the means to ends relationship is what should govern or at least amplify the debate on boycotts.

On this national holiday, it is important to remember that Dr King began his road to immortality, along with Ms Parks, Ms Colvin and Jo Ann Robinson, in leading the boycott that led to the desegregation of Montgomery buses and eventually toward the end of Jim Crow apartheid in the United States. While some boycotts may emanate from a reactionary impulse: it is not merely progressives who promote them, they have a rich history of non-violent, robust opposition to a perceived or actual wrong. May they endure!

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