Johns Hopkins University Prof. Lester Spence’s lecture Monday at Dominican University on the Montgomery Bus boycott and its impact for blacks and America was different in one aspect from other such lectures: Spence doesn’t believe the day should be commemorated.
That may strike some as crazy. But Spence is no radical black conservative or revisionist black history scholar. Rather, the political science professor and Detroit native sees Dr. King, the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and the civil rights struggle as a whole in a much broader context for today’s blacks.
“I don’t believe we should actually be commemorating MLK day, we should be using the lessons of the civil rights movement in order to inspire us to organize on the issues that are important to us,” Spence said to a small crowd at Dominican’s Eloise Martin Recital Hall. His speech was part of the school’s annual King celebration.
Much of the civil rights movement has been mythologized, Spence believes, from black leaders like King to specific struggles such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott, he pointed out, has been reduced to a heroic Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat to a white rider because she was sick and tired of being “sick and tired.” That’s not the whole picture, he said.
“That short story, if we believed it, would say that change only occurs when you have these heroic individuals stand up, and when stars have are aligned right and you have black people who all of a sudden agree. That story hamstrings our ability to organize.”
The boycott actually began by local civil rights leaders in Montgomery three years earlier who were protesting segregation and Jim Crow laws at the time. And without diminishing the likes of Rosa Parks, who died last year at age 92, many blacks were discriminated against on Montgomery buses and other places in the South and parts of the North.
“Struggle takes a long time. They don’t call it struggle for nothing,” Spence said. “The civil rights movement was a series of victories at the lower level that bubbled up.”
Other myths exist, such as black southern ministers including Dr. King riding to the rescue to lead the boycott. Spence, along with other historical data, points out that several ministers in Montgomery refused to let activists meet in their church.
King and others reluctantly agreed after being “browbeaten” by local activists, Spence said.
“The black ministers loved black people?”loved black people?”but they had their own interests. People literally had knock-down, drag-out fights until they hatched out all the details of the bus boycott. And they had to figure out how to punish people who didn’t take part in the boycott. People knew they would get stares and much worse if they were caught on that bus.”
“Now just think about that larger story and the one we’re taught as kids,” he added.
Some issues facing blacks today?”crime, failing schools and poverty-stricken neighborhoods?”all have ties to the civil rights era of the ’50, ’60s and ’70s, he said.
The conflict between upper-middle-class and low-income blacks is one of the more disturbing ones to Spence.
“I hear that all the time. Middle-class blacks will point the finger at low-income blacks and say, ‘You’re not doing your part, you’re not holding up your end of things,’ but rarely look at themselves,” Spence said. “If we’re really going to talk about responsibility, then upper blacks need ask what is wrong with our situation and what can we do to make it better.”
The upper- and lower-class black schism existed long before Bill Cosby’s controversial remarks in 2004, when he attacked poor blacks for such things as not speaking proper English and having children out of wedlock.
Cosby, during a Brown vs. Board of Education commemoration ceremony at Rainbow/Push’s 2004 convention, also told blacks to stop blaming the white man.
“I don’t pretty much agree with Bill Cosby,” said Dominican University junior Rojenia Judkins, who came to hear Spence’s lecture. “I do believe that everyone has a personal responsibility, but I do think there is something greater than personal responsibility that can have an effect and take hold of your life. As people do need to stand up and take more responsibility I think greater responsibility lies with our leaders both black and white.”
Spence, however, doesn’t think blacks need to wait for our leaders bring about change. That, he said, can come from blacks organizing themselves.
“We think that the only way we’re going to have change is if someone rides up on a white horse,” he said. “I’m able to come up here and share my ‘quote-unquote’ wisdom largely because people fought for us, not just to give us more opportunity but to make this country a better place.”