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American Literary History 17.3 (2005) 530-541

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Meditation on Memory:

Clark Johnson's Boycott

Clark Johnson's 2001 made-for-television HBO film Boycott opens with a title that reads, "On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, a single act of defiance united a community, ignited a movement, and gave voice to a new leader." This title seems to mark Boycott as yet another narrative identifying Rosa Parks's refusal to yield her seat on a segregated bus as the impetus not only for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott and for his public career but also for the modern civil rights movement in the US. In fact, the film dismantles that reductive yet familiar account in a variety of ways. Through fleeting but nonetheless unmistakable references both to Parks's activist background and political consciousness and to Mary Louise Smith and Claudette Colvin, it places Parks's act of civil disobedience in the context of earlier acts of resistance.1 Furthermore, it complicates our view of King's leadership. Rather than portraying him as an always already dazzlingly charismatic, passionately committed, and stunningly articulate champion of nonviolence of mythic proportions, the film emphasizes his youth, uncertainty, and vulnerability at this early stage in his public career.

Additionally, the film highlights the role of women such as Joann Gibson Robinson and labor leaders such as E. D. Nixon in organizing and sustaining the boycott. It sheds light on the complex power dynamics that animated the relationships among the Reverends King, Ralph David Abernathy, and other local clergymen. It illuminates the divergent roles of working-class and middle-class African-Americans in the movement. It emphasizes the significance of Bayard Rustin, a theorist and practitioner of nonviolent resistance, as King's mentor. And it enlarges our sense of the movement as a period by linking the boycott to a history of discrimination, terrorism, and resistance of which this collective action is but a part. In all these ways, the film undercuts the notion of the boycott as an originary moment, the claims of the opening title notwithstanding, and it suggests that the boycott's legacy and repercussions are to be felt into the present.2 [End Page 530]

Part of the achievement of Boycott is the extent to which this revisionist impulse informs not only its content but also its aesthetics. By focusing primarily on the film's beginning and ending, in this essay I explore how the visuals and soundtrack of the film respond to the changing historiography of the movement and expand viewers' understanding of it. Through the use of a range of techniques including fictionalized scenes, the handheld camera, talking heads, a mix of real and faux footage, and a prominent soundtrack, Boycott prompts viewers to think about the strategies by which history in general and the history of the civil rights movement in particular have been represented cinematically. In its use of anachronism and the interweaving of the technologies of documentary practice and fiction filmmaking, it encourages us to reflect not only on the nature and politics of leadership and resistance but also on the politics and function of remembering.

US culture seems to be intrigued with the memory and legacy of the civil rights movement. Although there is no real consensus about when the movement began, let alone when it ended, its prominent figures, unsung heroes, landmark events, minor battles, and intimate effects have been the subject of innumerable films, autobiographies, novels, historiographical studies, poems, songs, and short stories, and more than a few museums exhibits, television shows, and public memorials. Significant milestones, such as the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington and the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, have provided occasions for an increasing number of conferences, exhibitions, and anthologies. The long-delayed reopening of investigations into the murders of Emmett Till and of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner; the 1994 conviction of Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers; and the 2001...


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