Understanding the Participatory Emotions of a Social Movement

By Felicia McGhee-Hilt

Ella. Lee. Pettway. Most people are not familiar with that name but she was one of the 50,000 foot soldiers of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She is also my maternal grandmother.

I deliberated for quite some time about whether I should do a study on the Montgomery Bus Boycott because so much has already been done on it. However, while at the Alabama Department of Archives in Montgomery, I decided to look through old newspaper articles about the boycott. I viewed many pictures, but there was one picture on the front of the newspaper The Montgomery Advertiser that caught my eye. The picture consisted of black domestics walking to work. As I continued to view the picture, I realized that one of the women looked extremely familiar. It was my grandmother. With purse in hand, she was walking along with the many other people that day. It was then that I realized that the Montgomery Bus Boycott was still a ripe research topic.

Social movement theories have been well researched but there is one critical component that deserves more attention: the participants. Most research and popular books focus on the main players of the boycott: Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, E. D. Nixon, Fred Gray. However, the boycott was comprised of thousands of people—why have we not heard from more of them? With a newfound purpose, I sought out to find them. With the help of former Alabama State University President Dr. Joe Lee and his wife Margie Lee, I was able to interview 18 former participants of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, none of whom had ever been featured in any research study.

Social movement theories have evolved over the years, from the classic collective behavior theory (Kornhauser 1966), which assumed that social isolation and alienation resulted in extreme behavior, to the political process model (McAdam 1982) that claims that a social movement is more of a political phenomenon rather than a psychological one. Prior to the 1960s, protestors were seen as irrational or immature (Morris 1999). However, the civil unrest during the Civil Rights Movement required a different theoretical perspective to understand the motives of the protestors. As a result, several scholars called for more theoretical attention to the role of emotions in social movements (Goodwin, Jasper, and Polletta 2001, Robnett 1998, Taylor 1995). “Indeed, there is a need to investigate how emotions relate to the way in which activists build networks that help organize, mobilize and sustain social movements in places and across space“ (Bosco 2007: 549). Bosco states that emotions may be the factor as to why a person joins a social movement and why they sustain their involvement. Ruiz-Junco (2013) states that emotions are present in every phase of a social movement and that these emotions serve as motivational factors. “Most of the work on emotions in social movements remains scattered and ad hoc, addressing one emotion in a single kind of setting. It has yet to be to be integrated into general frameworks for studying mobilization and movement” (Bosco 2007: 548).

Doron Shulziner argues that there were three social-psychological factors that contributed to the Montgomery Bus Boycott: social interactions between whites and blacks, the changing ratio of black and white bus riders, and labor issues facing the bus drivers. While I agree with Shulziner’s assessment, I believe there needs to be more attention paid to the emotions of the boycott participants. In an attempt to understand these social movement emotions, I interviewed 18 participants of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and found that the emotional work was three-fold: inception, activist, and concluding emotions.

Inception Emotions

According to the participants, there were many shared emotions during the course of the movement; however, I would like to begin with the emotions prior to the boycott, what I deem as “inception emotions.” As the participants described life in the Jim Crow South, experiencing segregation was one commonality. Whether they grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, or other nearby southern communities, segregation was the norm. Blacks were treated differently in every aspect of life from shopping to medical attention. Charles Varner explained that during that time it was impossible to forget segregation, because it was so prevalent.

It was a time when everyday, when you woke up, no matter what your plans for the day were, they could be altered by any white person walking the street in the city of Montgomery or any other similar city.

Mr. Charles Varner

Experiencing segregation for the first time and segregation in general were moments the participants vividly remembered.

I just headed to the door and a man said, the white owner I assume he was, he said ‘you can’t use that restroom.’ And I was very demanding. I said, ‘why not, I got to go to the restroom’. And he said, ‘you can’t use it and the other little girl punched me in the back and she says come one, come on, let’s go. That was the first time I experienced it.

Ms. Annie Lovett

We used to have to go to the back, what was it, like businesses that sell food? We had to go to the window, you know, we couldn’t go on the inside.

Ms. Mary Rollins

Participants said the effects of segregation made them feel inferior and humiliated.

Well, it made us feel that us…a little less than, not as, not as important, not as privileged because a lot of things that they had that we didn’t have, we weren’t cherished to have and we were made to feel inferior to those people because of the way that we was brought up.

Mr. Earnest Luckie

If they saw your skin was black then you were nasty, you was unfit to be with them, unfit to sit down, but you could work in the house and cook for them and cook the food, take care of the children and everything.

Ms. Ethel Robinson

Despite the constant degradation of segregation, participants said they still had feelings of self-pride and self-worth. These feelings were instilled in them by their parents; however this created a dichotomy that was arduous to explain.

Basically my mother explained it to me and it was a hardship for her to try to get us to understand because we didn’t, at that age we didn’t know the difference between why the other people could sit at the front of the bus and we couldn’t, but then they would try to explain it to us…that that was the law. They didn’t want to say that white people was better than black people …but that was the law then that we had to sit on the back of the bus.

Mr. Earnest Luckie

Activist Emotions

The shared inception emotions of shame and humiliation resulted in activist related emotions such as courage, determination, and success.

Once the bus boycott started we was involved, everybody was getting involved a little, some a little more than others because of their own participation in it, everybody got involved, every black got involved.

Mr. Earnest Luckie

And on that first day of the boycott, Monday, December 5, the sight of the empty buses provided the participants with a feeling of success.

That first day especially was thrilling to see people walking, not just walking but heads held high and just striding along and moving down the street and a lot of people like me were just out randomly picking up people and taking them where they need to go…. it was just exciting.

Rev. Robert Graetz

You know, it was a fun experience because everybody felt that they were participating in something that was a history-making thing. I mean, you know, like never before in this history of this country had African-Americans come together on the one issue and stuck together like that because there were so many people…maybe ten people or ten percent or twenty percent of the people might not ride but boy when that bus, when those buses were rolling out on Monday and nobody was on it, I tell you.

Mr. Charles Varner

Varner explained that he believed there was such wide support because segregation affected every black family.

There was not a single family that had not had a relative or a close friend who had been adversely affected by something that happened on a bus. If it was not, it was not a family a member, it was a church member or a school member or someone because almost everyday and this is not an exaggeration, almost everyday somewhere on that city bus line some black person was negatively affected.

Mr. Charles Varner

After the success of that one-day boycott, at a mass meeting that evening, boycott participants voted to continue the boycott indefinitely. With that came the scheduling of weekly mass meetings that would go on for more than a year. The mass meetings were held with the purpose of not only informing the black community of the status of the boycott, but to encourage the boycotters to continue their fight for equality.

Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy, E. D. Nixon, some of those people would be there to give speeches and give…. let you know what was up, what was happening and what the plans was for the boycott to continue but more than that, it was motivational speeches that they gave so people be able to continue with the benefits of the marches and stuff… it motivated you to become a better person, strive to be more, strive to let you know that you’re God’s people just as well…and your right is the same as everybody else’s rights.

Mr. Earnest Luckie

One participant who attended a mass meeting held in Lowndes County, Alabama (outside of Montgomery), said the purpose was to pray and support Montgomery’s black community. These prayers would encourage the participants to continue to trust God and believe that through their faith would bring them through the boycott.

Black people stood…knowing that they were standing up for their rights and during that time standing up for their rights was, was actually a big thing, it was a scary thing because so many people had their lives taken for trying to stand up for their right or how people during that time you would hear about black people getting lynched, black people just getting murdered down because they are trying to stand up for their rights.

Mr. Earnest Luckie

Faith was very important because and that’s what King’s speeches and Abernathy’s speeches and other ministers were speaking. And their whole thing was based around, when they’d say, ‘you have to believe’, that’s faith. You have to believe, okay, you’re going to make it through this. If you did not have the faith that you could make it through this danger, then you wouldn’t do it.

Mr. Thomas McGhee

That faith fueled their determination to not ride the buses for more than a year. Ms. Robinson and Ms. Rollins, who both worked as domestics, said the boycott meant walking miles or receiving rides through the MIA’s elaborate carpooling system.

Whole lot of times I would ride with some people, they would come down and we’ll wait down at the end of the street and people go down there and they would, a lot of cars, people volunteering and bus and everything they would drive you to work, so a lot of times when it was raining or bad I would wait, you know, and any other times I just walk because I was young then and had a lot of pep.

Ms. Ethel Robinson

Yeah, I was walking because we didn’t have any cars, you know, so we had to walk for miles…and they had the Ku Klux Klan riding their horses, you know, when people were walking and stuff like that.

Ms. Mary Rollins

Ms. Robinson admitted that there were many times during the boycott that she was afraid, but her faith gave her courage.

I’ve been afraid a lot of times, but I just ask God to go before me, as a lead lamb, behind his protective angels that’s all you go to do cause God is going to do it. With you and him and he and you and you going go do what he say he do, he’s going take care of you.

Ms. Ethel Robinson

Concluding Emotions

Finally on November 13, 1956, the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregation on Montgomery’s buses was illegal. The participants felt that they had won a major victory, as their actions changed the segregation laws on Montgomery’s buses.

That boycott was a change in the humanity, it was a change in everybody’s lives because it got people to see that we’re all children of God, and that boycott gave black people strength, gave people the courage to go on and live productive lives.

Mr. Earnest Luckie

I remember going parking standing on the streets, me and several other blacks and the jubilation we felt when we saw blacks sitting in front of the bus. I had a car, I didn’t have a need to ride the bus you know, but it’s just jubilation…jubilation seeing other blacks you know ride the bus and sit up in front….

Mr. Anthony Dumas

As Jasper (2011) states, emotions fuel social movements and this was evident in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Participant interviews indicate that inception emotions must consist of both negative and positive feelings. This provides some elucidation because negative emotions without the presence of positive emotions, I believe, would void any potential social activism, as the individual would simply fall prey to the negative emotions. In order for people to initially get involved with a social movement organization (SMO), it is necessary that this emotional dichotomy be present. The participants must innately feel that the aggrieved practice, in this case segregation, is wrong.

However, this is only one phase of the equation. Mobilizing the participants could be considered the easy task, while keeping them motivated could be the more arduous task. This is where activist emotions play crucial key roles. In an SMO’s beginning stages there must be some type of “small success.” For the bus boycott participants, viewing the empty buses roll through Montgomery on Monday, December 1, 1955 gave them that small success. Also, during this activist emotion stage, continued motivation via the weekly mass meetings kept the participants encouraged and determined. Finally, the concluding emotions of jubilation and pride were exuded upon the movement’s success.

I wonder what would have happened if that first day was not successful. Would the boycott have continued? The boycott continued for more than a year, but I question if it could have gone on with the same level of intensity for more than two or three years. I believe more research is needed on the participatory emotions of longer social movements. Are inception, activist, and concluding emotions applicable in other social movements? There are still many questions left to be answered, however it is my belief that focusing on the participants needs to be primary.



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1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Origins of Social Movements

One response to “Understanding the Participatory Emotions of a Social Movement

  1. Michael Schwartz

    This is on of the best things I have read about the civil rights movement.and about social movement theory. The analytic points are carried by the quotes with incredible force. we need much more of this sort of scholarship.


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