Rosa Parks, #MeToo, and the Important Role of Protest in Our Democracy

What do Rosa Parks, #MeToo, the Women’s March on Washington and the Pussyhat Project, Black Lives Matter, and Colin Kaepernick have in common? They all represent long-term protests against sexual assault or racial injustice—protests that are an essential part of our democracy. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC, a nonprofit civil rights organization) reminds us that unless we understand that social change occurs only when there is sustained protest, we can too easily become discouraged when change does not come quickly (see article by SPLC editors entitled “Rosa Parks, #MeToo, and the Nature of the Struggle”). In fact, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore of the New York Times points out that protests during the twentieth century helped forge a more democratic country. Gilmore notes that unfortunately our textbooks do us a disservice when they “celebrate moments when single acts of civil disobedience, untainted by political organizations, seemed to change the course of history.” Single acts of courage almost never change the course of history. Don’t get me wrong; individual courage is important but only effective if it occurs in the context of movements and political organizations. This understanding can help us realize the importance of not giving up when change does not come quickly. The #MeToo movement and all the women, along with some men, coming forward to reveal experiences of sexual assault is amazing. The outpouring of stories is like raging waters released after a dam breaks. These waters are pushing against a dam created by social attitudes and a legal system that make it hard for perpetrators to be held accountable. There is a long history of protest and struggle for justice against sexual violence, going back to a national campaign against sexual assault of black women led by Rosa Parks a decade before she refused to give up her seat on the bus. In 1944 Parks led a campaign against the Alabama legal system when a grand jury refused to indict six men for the brutal gang rape of Mrs. Recy Taylor. While Parks and the NAACP were not successful in bringing the rapists to justice, the SPLC notes, “more than 70 years after Recy Taylor’s rape, a day of reckoning appears to have arrived for sexual predators in all fields,” reflected in the high-profile firings and the #MeToo movement. The Women’s March and Pussyhat Project are part of this reckoning. Ignited by the sexism and racism on display during the 2016 presidential race and the lack of accountability for Trump’s behavior reflected in his bragging about sexually assaulting women in the Access Hollywood tape, women and male allies continue to press for his accountability. However, the legal system continues to make justice difficult to attain with the use of nondisclosure agreements, arbitration requirements that favor employers, and vague legal standards for “severe and pervasive” sexual harassment. Nonetheless, we are making progress and must persist to stop sexual harassment. The SPLC notes that social change does not happen with one protest, one campaign, or one person. Gilmore points out that when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, it was not a spontaneous act. Parks was a trained activist and part of a movement protesting Jim Crow, a legal and social system of degradation. The lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, were not a spontaneous act but were part of the racial justice fight for quality education, voting rights, and economic opportunity. The Black Lives Matter movement is part of this long history of struggle for racial justice as is Colin Kaepernick’s anthem kneeling. #MeToo is also part of a long history of struggle for both gender equity and racial justice. Gilmore reminds us that successful protests cast old wrongs in a new light and achieve partial victories. We are in a moment when real and lasting change is possible, however incomplete. Don’t get tired or discouraged—stick together, march together, and keep the pressure on our institutions. Social change will come and our democracy will be stronger.   Photo by Mobilus In Mobili, CC BY-SA 2.0.    ]]>