An Empirical Look at Issue
Publics and Participation
THROUGHOUT AMERICAN HISTORY, there are striking examples of disadvantaged minorities rising up to fight for their political rights. These examples reveal mechanisms that can draw traditionally marginalized individuals into the political system. One of the most striking examples is the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which marked the beginning of the civil rights movement in 1955. In this and other revolutionary moments in American history, masses of marginalized individuals endured considerable hardship to fight for their rights.
As for the boycotters themselves, the religious fervor they went to bed with at night always congealed by the next morning into cold practicality, as they faced rainstorms, mechanical breakdowns, stranded relatives, and complicated relays in getting from home to job without being late or getting fired or getting into an argument with the employer, then getting home again, perhaps having to find a way to and from the grocery store, and cooking and eating supper, dealing with children and housework, then perhaps going back out into the night for a mass meeting and finally home again, recharged by the “rousements” of [Reverend Ralph] Abernathy and the inspiration of [Reverend Martin Luther] King, and then at last some weary but contented sleep before the aching chill of dawn started the cycle all over again. To a largely uneducated people among whom the most common occupations were maid and day laborer, the loss of what was for many their most important modern convenience—cheap bus transportation—left them with staggering problems of logistics and morale…. [Nonetheless,] between 30,000 and 40,000 Negro fares were being denied to the buses every day.1
Despite extreme challenges, including managing daily life without transportation, thousands of poor, uneducated African-Americans found the motivation to sustain the boycott for 381 days. In doing so, they defied models of political participation that view minorities and people with low