Consultant Physician and Diabetologist at Balaji Hospital Tikrapara
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12 मार्च 2013
PART III: THE POWER OF HABITS IN SOCIAL MOVEMENTS
PART III: THE POWER OF HABITS IN SOCIAL MOVEMENTS
10. Rosa Parks, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and The Civil Rights Movement
In this final section we will take a brief look at how habits play a role in successful social movements (Duhigg himself dedicates only one chapter of the book to this topic, so the slight treatment here follows the slight treatment in the book itself).
As Duhigg explains, sociologists and historians have identified a three part process which they say shows up time and time again when it comes to successful social movements: “a movement starts because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances. It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighborhoods and clans together. And it endures because a movement’s leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership” (loc. 3612). In order to illustrate how each part of the process works, Duhigg focuses in on the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, beginning with Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott.
On December 1st 1955, in Montgomery Alabama, Rosa Parks did a peculiar (and illegal) thing: Rosa, a black woman, refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a white rider (loc. 3584-88). The immediate effect of this action was that Parks was arrested, but the act would also set the stage for one of the biggest and most successful social movements of the 20thcentury: “at that moment, though no one on that bus knew it, the civil rights movement pivoted. That small refusal was the first in a series of actions that shifted the battle over race relations from a struggle fought by activists in courts and legislatures into a contest that would draw its strength form entire communities and mass protests” (loc. 3594).
Now, Rosa Parks was not the first black person to be arrested for violating Montgomery’s bus segregation laws. Indeed, as Duhigg points out, this had occurred on numerous occasions in the years leading up to the incident with Parks (loc. 3619-26). Those previous arrests did not start a mass movement, however, while Rosa’s did. So, what was the difference? It was not, as we might expect, that Parks was an activist. Indeed, she herself would be the first to tell you that she was not. So what was it?
To begin with, Rosa Parks was a very popular lady, in that she was “deeply respected and embedded in her community” (loc. 3643), and had many, many friends. This was partly due to the fact that Parks was a part of so many different clubs and organizations, and in each of these clubs and organizations she “was particularly well known and liked” (loc. 3649). What’s more, “Parks’ many friendships and affiliations cut across the city’s racial and economic lines” (loc. 3652), such that her social networks extended to virtually everyone in town.
Given that this was the case, when news spread that Parks had been arrested and was being held in jail, her many friends started to come out of the woodwork and began thinking and communicating about how they could help. Within hours, two of Rosa’s friends, E.D. Nixon and Clifford Durr, had posted her bail, and had taken her home (loc. 3669). But their involvement didn’t end there. Durr was a white lawyer, and Nixon a man involved with the NAACP, and both had been looking for a prominent case to challenge the segregation laws on Montgomery’s buses. Sensing the perfect opportunity, they asked Rosa if she would agree to fight her charges in court. At first, Parks and her family were reluctant, but ultimately she agreed, and Nixon and Durr prepared to launch their case (loc. 3676).
As news of Parks’ arrest continued to spread through Montgomery, another of Parks’ friends, a woman named Jo Ann Robinson—who was “the president of a powerful group of schoolteachers involved in politics” (loc. 3676)—caught wind of Parks’ plight. Robinson immediately called a meeting of the teachers and parents of students that she knew and suggested that they promote a boycott of Montgomery’s buses on the day that Parks was to appear in court (loc. 3680). Nixon and Durr were apprized of the plan, and those involved began working to spread the word about the boycott. When news circulated that a bus boycott was going to be held in support of Parks, Parks’ friends immediately signed on, and since Rosa had many friends, this was a great many people indeed.
Thus we see how the first step in successful social movements, the support of close friends, played a part in this case (loc. 3696). As Duhigg points out, “there’s a natural instinct embedded in friendship, a sympathy that makes us willing to fight for someone we like when they are treated unjustly” (loc. 3690), and this was certainly true with Rosa’s friends.
Now that Parks’ friends were involved, it remained for them to spread the word (and the pressure to join in) through their own social networks, and the wider groups and communities of which they were a part. After Parks’ friends took the necessary steps to exert their influence, “people who hardly knew Rosa Parks decided to participate because of a social peer pressure—an influence known as ‘the power of weak ties’—that made it difficult to avoid joining in” (loc. 3702). While the term ‘weak ties’ may make this force sound a bit, well, weak, it is anything but. Indeed, as Duhigg explains, “when sociologists have examined how opinions move through communities, how gossip spreads or political movements start, they’ve discovered a common pattern: Our weak-tie acquaintances are often as influential—if not more—than our close tie friends” (loc. 3731). The reason why, it seems, is because going against the grain of the groups and communities of which we are a part risks destroying our social standing (loc. 3750). Given that this is the case, there is an enormous amount of pressure for us to go along with these groups, and this is precisely what happened here.
After all was said and done, every black church in the city (including Martin Luther King, Jr.’s) had agreed to the boycott (loc. 3836), and several other groups and communities were also on board (loc. 3839). “The community’s weak ties were drawing everyone together,” Duhigg claims, “at that point, you were either with the boycott or against it” (loc. 3848). As you might expect, the boycott was a huge success. Indeed, as Martin Luther King, Jr. later described it, “a miracle had taken place… spectators had gathered at the bus stops to watch what was happening. At first, they stood quietly, but as the day progressed they began to cheer the empty buses and laugh and make jokes. Noisy youngsters could be heard singing out, ‘No riders today’” (loc. 3854). Thus we see how the second step in successful social movements, the power of weak ties that holds groups and communities together, played a role here.
The movement had now spread to the level of the groups and communities of Montgomery, but it was still in no position to become a self-perpetuating force. Within but a few weeks, King himself “would be openly worrying that people’s resolve was weakening, that ‘the ability of the Negro community to continue the struggle’ was in doubt” (loc. 3867). What the movement needed, Duhigg argues, was a leader who could give its adherents new habits that would give them a sense of identity that would help them carry on (loc. 3870). That leader, of course, would be King, and the new habits that he would instill in the movement’s followers would be the method of non-violent resistance that King both advocated and practiced himself (loc. 3997-4006).
In many ways, the non-violent approach was a departure from how the civil rights movement had been fought up to that point: “for years, the civil rights movement had been kept alive by couching itself in the language of battles and struggles. There were contests and setbacks, triumphs and defeats that required everyone to recommit to the fight” (loc. 4011). But King changed all of that, and the change was precisely what the civil rights movement needed; for under King’s guidance, the movement’s adherents gained a new sense of identity, and the movement itself coalesced and grew stronger. As Duhigg puts it, “Montgomery’s citizens learned in mass meetings new behaviours that expanded the movement” (loc. 4028). Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize winning civil rights historian, said of the mass meetings that “people went to see how other people were handling it… You start to see yourself as part of a vast social enterprise, and after a while, you really believe you are” (loc. 4031).
Ultimately, the habits that King cultivated in his followers in Montgomery spread to other places and groups: “the civil rights movement became a wave of sit-ins and peaceful demonstrations, even as participants were violently beaten. By the early 1960’s, it had moved to Florida, California, Washington, D.C., and the halls of congress” (loc. 4064). Finally, the movement achieved success, and in 1964 President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, “which outlawed all forms of segregation as well as discrimination against minorities and women” (loc. 4067).
So there you have it. Habits not only have a large role to play in our personal lives, but are also a major force in the businesses and organizations of which we are a part, and are a necessary ingredient in successful social movements, which themselves influence how our very communities function. In each of these cases, we can have an influence on which habits hold sway, and how they are expressed. It is simply a matter of understanding how habits work, and manipulating this process to our own advantage. So, what habits do you want to change?