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Collective Action and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

(OP: FEBRUARY 22, 2018)

In a recent survey, we asked people whether they had ever contacted a government representative, and if not, why. One anonymous respondent sent in a disheartening reply: “One person cannot make a difference.”

We hear axioms like this pretty often in politics, often in reference to the pointlessness of voting in elections where the state’s vote always goes to one party or the other - say, Democrats in New York or Republicans in Arizona, or contacting your Congressional representative to express your opinion on an issue when they may just vote along party lines. Believing that your voice won’t make a difference can generate the kind of apathy that leads to one of the biggest barriers to effective democracy - the collective action problem.

Collective action problems happen when a group has a common goal, and the members of the group need to participate individually in order to reach the goal, but they are somehow disincentivized to do so. For citizens whose common goal is a government that properly represents their interests, this disincentive can come in the form of a belief that participation doesn’t actually further their interests.

Since collective action problems often hinder democratic initiatives, some of democracy’s most famous successes result from overcoming collective action problems. Consider the Montgomery bus boycott, a crucial turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. The boycott began with a now famous figure: Rosa Parks. Most people are familiar with Parks, a seamstress and secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP who refused to give up her bus seat for a white man. Parks was lauded as a hero by Montgomery’s black citizens, and the community’s leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., took the opportunity to call for a boycott of the bus system.

The proposal for the boycott was spread through community organizations, such as churches and the Women’s Political Council of Montgomery, to Montgomery’s 40,000 black residents. They, in turn, organized an efficient carpool network, took taxis, walked, or even hitchhiked. When the city outlawed carpools, more turned to walking, and many black taxi drivers reduced their prices to a flat fee equal to the price of a bus ticket.

Catalyzed By Action

Ultimately, the boycott lasted 381 days, to the surprise and chagrin of the city officials. This took a severe economic toll on the bus system, since 75% of the city’s bus riders were black. The exercise ended only when the Supreme Court held up an earlier federal court ruling in the case Browder v. Gayle, which found that Alabama’s bus laws violated the 14th amendment. The loss of revenue, coupled with the ruling, left officials no choice but to lift the restrictions. While the struggle for racial justice was far from over, Montgomery’s activists had proven the efficacy of non-violent mass protest, and catalyzed further action around the country.

The poster children of the Montgomery protest, such as Dr. King and Ms. Parks, would become household names due to their bravery and dynamism. Both even accepted punishment for their actions without resistance, which in turn brought national attention to civil rights issues in Montgomery. However, the success of the boycott movement was due to the individual members of Montgomery’s black community, who bore disruption in their daily lives in order to stand up for racial equality.

Since that community acted collectively, it may seem to support the notion that “one person cannot make a difference.”

A Movement of Individuals

Nevertheless, each member woke up on 381 mornings and decided individually to participate, and certainly conquered doubts that their efforts would have an effect on the establishment. If each of them had woken up and given in to their doubts and taken the bus instead, the city of Montgomery might never have been held accountable for their human rights infractions.  With their courage, they proved the power of collective action, and that collective action begins with the individual.

Decades later, the collective organization of the Montgomery boycott is no less impressive, due to the activists’ ability to overcome the collective action problem and mobilize large amounts of people to participate. However, their movement was comprised of individuals, and each one has made a remarkable difference.

What are your thoughts?