What do you do if you thought the world was getting better, but lately, it feels like we're moving backward? What do you do if every time you check the news, it makes your stomach drop or your fists clench?
The year is 1955.
A 42-year-old seamstress, just off her job at the Montgomery Fair department store, is asked to move from her seat on the bus to make room for the white passengers.
You’ve heard the story, right? Rosa Parks, “tired of giving in,” stands up to the discriminatory bus laws in Montgomery, Alabama. It sets off a chain of events that leads all the way to a Supreme Court ruling on November 13, 1956: that the segregation of buses would now be unconstitutional.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a huge victory in the fight against discrimination in the U.S., and Rosa Parks became “the mother of the civil rights movement.” All of this came within the two years following the decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (KS)—“separate but equal” segregation was inherently unequal, and that schools would be desegregated.
The world was becoming a better place. Cue confetti.
These are the types of stories we like to see and hear. These are the events that we find in our timelines of the civil rights movement. But we’ve glossed over some important details. It wasn’t all celebration and progress. There were dark nights of the soul and severe setbacks.
Consider this: .he murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy, in August of 1955. Emmett was falsely accused of whistling at a white woman in a store. Four days later, he was kidnapped, beaten, shot in the head, and then dumped into the Talahatchie River. The men who killed him were tried in front of an all-white jury, and despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, were found not guilty.
The world must have seemed pretty dark at that point.
Then there was the night of January 30, 1956. Martin Luther King, Jr. was at a meeting to support the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was in full swing by now. While he was there, a bomb exploded on the front porch of his home, with his wife and ten-week-old daughter inside. Fortunately, his family wasn’t injured, but no one was ever prosecuted for the bombing.
For most of us, had our home been bombed in response to the work we were doing, this would be a step backward.
Two months after that bombing, in March 1956, eighty-two Representatives and nineteen Senators—almost one-fifth of Congress, and all from former Confederate states—signed the Southern Manifesto. Howard Smith, chairman of the House Rules Committee, introduced the Manifesto as “The Declaration of Constitutional Principles,” and argued that the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (KS) decision was an abuse of judicial power, and vowed to resist it by all means necessary. No member of Congress stood to speak against it.
Between 1953 and 1965, 123 civil rights bills were brought to the Senate. Only one of them was ever heard on the floor.
On September 4, 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to stand in front of Central High School in Little Rock. Why? To prevent nine black students from entering the previously all-white school now that desegregation was under way. In addition to the National Guard, white parents and students gathered in front of the school, screaming and even spitting at the black students.
In the fight for progress, against such resistance, it’d be easy to think we had come to a standstill. Maybe we were even moving backward.
Here’s the truth about progress, and about anything that’s worth fighting for:
It’s often going to get worse before it gets better.
There will be times it feels like progress is being made. And there will be times when it feels like it was all erased. There will be times you’ll be celebrating a victory. The crowds will cheer. The confetti will swirl around you. And then you blink, and a bomb goes off on your porch.
The crowds will be gone. The lights will go out.
It often gets worse before it gets better. But getting worse, or meeting resistance, or experiencing setbacks, doesn’t mean that the fight is lost.
It means you need to brace yourself. It means you need to persevere. More than ever, this is the time you need to hold on to the hope that things can and will be better.
It’s easy to march in the parade. It’s easy to celebrate the victories with confetti. It’s easy to admire the accomplishments of the past on a glossy timeline with all of the highlights jumping off the page.
It’s much tougher, yet necessary, to have a white-knuckled grip on faith, and hope, and love. The kind of faith, hope, and love we need is the kind that won’t quit in the face of injustice, or shrink in the shadow of oppression, or give in to the tactics of hate.
In the often-overlooked spaces between some of the greatest strides this country has taken toward being better, you’ll find people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. fighting through every setback and challenge the system could throw at them. They endured. They persevered. They rose above.
This is the way it goes in the fight to make the world a better place—it sometimes gets worse first. But all is not lost. If you feel like the world has gone sideways and upside-down and backward, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in some pretty good company.
Hold on to hope. Keep up the fight. We need you now more than ever.