Some things not taught in history, probably because they muddle up the stories…
The American Revolution: Fighting Against Freedom
During the American Revolution, Britain proclaimed that any American slaves who escaped their rebel masters and made it to British held territory would be freed.* Thousands risked their lives to take the British up on their offer, including some of George Washington’s slaves. Although the French friend of the Revolution, Lafayette, strongly urged Washington to free at least the slaves who fought for the colonists, Washington refused and, after the War, tried to convince Great Britain to return freed slaves to their former masters. The British declined, staying true to their word. Some were kidnapped by slave traders, but many thousands were evacuated by the British first to Nova Scotia and later to Great Britain. The Americans lobbied for years to get the British to pay compensation to the American slave owners who had lost their “property.”
After the War, seeing that Slavery had remained entrenched in the United States, Lafayette told an abolitionist friend, “I would have never drawn my sword in the cause of America, if I could have conceived that thereby I was founding a land of slavery.”
*Although Britain dominated the slave trade at the time, there was no slavery in England. To find out more, read Bury the Chains, by Adam Hochschild.
“But What About Hitler?”
When discussing nonviolent versus violent resistance, the question often comes up: “Nonviolence may work in some situations, but what if you’re facing Hitler?” We don’t have the historical advantage of knowing how an organized international nonviolent resistance to Nazi Germany would have worked out. But we do have an amazing example of nonviolent protest from within Germany, the Rosenstrasse protests.
In 1943 Berlin, at the height and center of Nazi power, a group of unarmed women faced down the Nazi SS… and won. Before the Nazis had taken power, quite a few non-Jewish German women had married Jewish men. About 2,000 Jews, mostly the husbands and the male children from these marriages, had been arrested by the Gestapo and were set to be deported, to forced labor or death camps. They were being detained in the Jewish Community Building on a street named Rosenstrasse.
Facing threats of lethal force, the unarmed wives and mothers of the detained protested in the street, an unthinkable act of defiance in Nazi Germany. News of the protest quickly spread and the Gestapo backed down, releasing their civilian prisoners.
For an illuminating narrative of these events, read Resistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany, by Nathan Stoltzfus.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott: Fighting for…?
Veterans and heirs of the Civil Rights Movement have done a good job debunking the myth that Rosa Parks was simply an old woman who refused to give up her seat to a White man because she was tired from a long day of work. That had been a popular an utterly false narrative of the latter part of the 20th century. But books, workshops, lectures, and articles have rewritten the story to more closely align it with reality: Rosa Parks was a civil rights activist, highly respected in the community, who remained seated in order to risk arrest and thus spark a movement. What followed was an inspired and courageous 381 day buss boycott that not only led to desegregated buses, but kick started the modern Civil Rights Movement… sort of.
In our quest to simplify history into narratives clear in meaning and devoid of nuance, a few fascinating details of the Montgomery Bus Boycott story have been discarded in the telling.
1. The activists were not initially demanding segregation.
In 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, public buses were actually divided into three sections: Whites were required to sit in the from seats and Blacks in the rear, as we know. But in the middle, or so-called “grey section,” anyone could sit, as long as seats were available for all passengers. According to the racially based hierarchical rules, a Black person had to give up her seat for a White person in the grey section if there were not enough forward seats to accompany all of the White passengers. It was in this section that Rosa Parks was sitting when she refused to give up her seat.
The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), which spearheaded and organized the bus boycott was not demanding that the buses be desegregated. Instead, they were focused on the middle, so-called grey section. It was their demand that no person be forced to give up her seat from that section of the bus. If their demands had been met, Black people would still be required to sit in the back of the bus and Whites in the front.
The MIA, led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., had other demands as well. The city buses had both front and a rear door. Black passengers had to pay the driver up front, then leave the bus and walk to the back door to be let in. Often, drivers would take off before the passenger boarded in back. Rosa Parks herself had endured this treatment in the past. The MIA demanded an end to this practice and courtesy from the bus drivers. They also demanded that more Black drivers be hired for the predominantly Black routes.
2. It wasn’t the bus boycott that legally ended segregated public transportation.
Throughout the 381 day boycott, the activists had also been pursuing a challenge to bus segregation in federal court. It was the Supreme Court’s decision, on November 13, 1956, that outlawed bus segregation in Montgomery and across the nation. The lawsuit was separate from the boycott and, in fact, the plaintiffs did not include Rosa Parks; they included four other Black women who had suffered discrimination from the Montgomery bus drivers. One was a high school student named Claudette Colvin, who had been arrested nine months before Rosa Parks. Montgomery activists had initially considered using Colvin’s arrest and conviction to challenge the segregated bus system, but decided that as an unwed and pregnant teen, she didn’t have the right standing in the community.
There’s no question that the bus boycott galvanized the country, even the world. And, it was arguably the pressure and momentum of the boycott that influenced the Supreme Court in their decision. But we do a disservice to the people who make history, and we may miss valuable lessons, when we simplify their stories for the sake of easy understanding.
For more things that you may think are true but aren’t, click here: