The Power of Your Inherent Right to Say No

By: Lauren Maslen

Photography by Shakti's Featured Photographer Shaunti LallyiAm

Like most children growing up in the United States, I was told lies about the world around me. My parents, teachers and school curriculum spread thinly veiled misinformation about the country I lived in, its government, its history, its people and the way society “worked.” Perhaps they thought the truth was too complex for our young minds. Perhaps they didn’t want us to ask too many questions. Or, perhaps many didn’t know the truth themselves. ‘The government is here to protect you. Everyone at school is your friend. He’s being mean to you because he likes you. No, the chicken was never alive. Just eat it!’ Maybe the sugar coated version of the truth was simply meant to keep us feeling safe?

The Formative Years

I attended a private Catholic school in upstate New York until grade four. It was not unlike the secular public school I attended from grades 4-7 in South Carolina. Both taught me and my classmates about civil rights. We learned about Rosa Parks and her brave stance against the country’s racial segregation laws. Parks catalysed the Civil Rights Movement, we were taught. That much held true, despite the otherwise banal details.

I was told during these formative years that, on that fateful day that changed American history, Parks was simply too tired to move from her seat on the bus. She had been working all day and her feet were sore. She worked hard as a seamstress. She was pooped. She had finally gotten a chance to sit down and couldn’t be bothered to move when she was just that tired.

This is one of the most blasphemous lies I was told as a child: that a woman’s apathy inspired the momentous boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama bus system; that her exhaustion was the spark that ignited the Civil Rights Movement. There is something fervently critical to be said about our education system for the fact that my young classmates and I were spooned the ignoble untruth that a tired, disinterested woman said “no,” was arrested, wrote a letter to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and so changed history.

Cognitive Dissonance

The truth was never fully sheathed in secrecy, rather it was severely distorted. Rosa Parks was not simply fatigued that day. She was well-worn and fed up with society’s bullshit. And she was ready to evoke change, so she said in her 1992 autobiography, “My Story”:

“I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was 42. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” [4] -Rosa Parks

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Parks was an active and devoted member of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). In fact, she was head of the NAACP’s Youth Council; a secretary to NAACP’s Montgomery chapter president E.D. Nixon; and she was elected State Secretary of Alabama’s NAACP in 1948. Prior to her arrest, she attended civil rights and disobedience workshops in the region, and gave public speeches in Atlanta, Washington, D.C. and Jacksonville. She rubbed elbows with fellow civil rights activists and powerful leaders around the U.S. including Fred Gray, the lawyer who would come to legally represent her and MLK Jr.; Jo Ann Robinson, a leader of the Women’s Political Council (WPC); and Clifford and Virginia Durr, Montgomery, Alabama’s leading white liberal activists. So, on that fateful first day of December, 1955, Parks had not merely found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time; she had tailored herself to be precisely that woman on that bus. [1]

After the arrest, E.D. Nixon and the Durrs bailed Parks out of jail while the WPC handed out tens of thousands of leaflets, asking people to stay off the Montgomery city buses. Nixon contacted Dr. King Jr. to alert him of the impending boycott and asked him to assist in further strategic planning.

The Boycott Gains Steam

This Bus Boycott is one of the most well-regarded in history. According to Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, on December 5, 1955, “90 percent of Montgomery’s black citizens stayed off the buses.” The boycott lasted 381 days and concluded with the Supreme Court ruling bus segregation to be unconstitutional in Browder v. Gayle. After the court rejected appeals to the decision in December of 1956, King and his organizers urged boycotters to ride the newly non-segregated buses. However, boycotting was not a legal practice in Alabama at the time: according to the Stanford’s King Institute, in February, 1956, “King and 89 others violated a 1921 statute that outlawed boycotts against businesses.” [5] King was found guilty of anti-boycott laws and sentenced to a $500 fine or 386 days in jail. He chose the jail sentence, two weeks of which he served. King’s arrest and the Montgomery Bus Boycott became national news. [7]

According to Brayden King, a management professor at Northwestern University who has studied the reputational threat of boycotted businesses based on 221 social movement boycotts, any amount of media attention can make an impact. [6]

“If you look at all boycotts that have received some minimal national media attention, about 25 percent of those boycotts lead to some sort of public concession on the firm’s part,” Professor King recently told Freakonomics Radio host Stephen J. Dubner. Companies that are targeted by boycotts tend to modify their behavior, making “prosocial claims” or tending towards “prosocial behavior,” King explained. [3]

That certainly held true once MLK Jr.’s work with the Montgomery Bus Boycott started gaining steam. For others, including the United Farm Workers Association (UFWA) and their grape boycott of the 1960s, led by Cesar Chavez, public concession was hard-won. After a messy five-year boycott of table grapes, particularly those sold specifically by conglomerate grocery chains like Safeway and Kroger, union contracts for farm workers were signed in 1970. The boycott involved years of fighting for fair wages and benefits, and non-violent protests against multi-million dollar public relations campaigns funded by the supermarket chains and the Department of Defense, who nearly doubled the shipment of grapes sent to troops overseas during the Vietnam War. Eventually, the boycott garnered supporters in every major North American distribution city, including Toronto, and the producers and retailers caved. Today, the grapes we see in supermarkets are a product of contracts between growers and the UFWA. [2]

Empowered Humans

Humans are creatures of habit. We are highly social, mutually dependent creatures who thrive on familiar connection. We also like things to be easy. We don’t change unless we need to, until we are pushed by some impetus. Most refuse to modulate their behavior until something is inadmissibly wrong, until we get sick of our own bullshit, or the bullshit we are allowing to transpire. For me, that meant saying no to products produced with palm oil, which supports the destruction of critical forest habitats home to several endangered species. It meant saying no to animal cruelty. It meant emailing my congressmen and women about the injustices I see in my community. Shakti Yogi Journal gives readers news and resources so we as a human community can be aware of what we are saying yes to.

There is immense power in saying no to the things we find wrong with the world, whether it’s to your boss; your parents; the ex who won’t stop texting at 1 a.m.; the corporations who seek egregious profits regardless of the wrongdoings and crimes they may commit to get there.

A solid “no” is not always as easy to say as we’d like it to be, especially in the face of opposition. It’s not a word we’ve been taught to use lightly. Rosa Parks proved that. The UFWA proved that. And contrary to the folklore my American education taught me to believe, Parks was no meek or modest woman who uttered a quiet negation and languidly accepted arrested. Instead, Parks educated herself. She became deeply involved in her community, and she networked with tact and ardor. She worked day and night in the face of adversity so that, when her time came to say “no,” she could make it count.

[1] Schmitz, Paul. “How Change Happens: The Real Story of Mrs. Rosa Parks & The Montgomery Bus Boycott” Huffington Post. 1 December 2014.

[2] Ferris, Susan, Ricardo Sandoval and Diana Hembree. The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement. 1997 Paradigm Productions, Inc. 155.

[3] Dunbar, Stephen J. “Do Boycotts Work?” Freakonomics. 21 January 2016.

[4] Crawford, Hillary E. “8 Memorable Rosa Parks Quotes That Remain As Potent Today As Ever.” Bustle. 1 December 2015.

[5] “State of Alabama V. M. L. King, Jr. (1956 and 1960)”

[6] King, Brayden and Mary-Hunter McDonnell. “Keeping up Appearances Reputational Threat and Impression Management after Social Movement Boycotts” Administrative Science Quarterly. September 2013. vol. 58 no. 3. 387-419.

[7] Oster, Grant. “Montgomery Bus Boycott” Hankering for History. 10 July 2012.
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