Civil Rights Protesting in 1955 and Today
In 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. The incident mobilized the civil rights movement and the Montgomery Bus Boycott was a defining event both for the movement and the profile of a young leader named Martin Luther King Jr.
Today nearly everyone will recognize the names of Rosa Parks and MLK Jr. Nearly everyone has imprinted on their minds black and white images of marches in the civil rights movement. These images have become holy icons for many in America. Iconography, however, has a habit of slipping into mere iconography.
Today if you sneeze someone may say “God bless you”. We don’t know why it started or where it started although there are some theories. In any case it is not uncommon for practices to take on cultural resonance even after they are disconnected from their origins.
I believe that protest iconography has slipped into sentimentality and nostalgia for many who know almost nothing about the actual history behind the icons. While protest marches didn’t start with the civil rights movement many present day manifestations lack the clarity and focus of those marches. The marches in Montgomery, and other marches that followed were often targeted at specific laws and practices whose repeal or suspense could be seen or verified.
Some of the popular marches today are not merely iconic, but also less specific. You can have your protest mean whatever it is you want it to mean. Just come and try not to offend anyone else in the march if it can be avoided.
This week Pepsi retracted an ad for its signature cola over illegitimate appropriation of the iconography.
Pepsi and its marketing experts attempted to distill the signals from the iconography that could produce a sort of relevant, feel good, moralism in an attempt to connect it to its soda.
Young, pretty, diverse looking people go through the motions in something between a Pepsi party and dinner theater.
The hero of the story gets woke by the show of the protest, becomes leader of the movement and brings peace by giving a Pepsi to an attractive non-aggressive cop.
The outrage at the whole thing was so pronounced Pepsi withdrew the ad.
I think the ad exposes the reality of salvation assumptions for our culture. All the element are there.
- Right is simple and self-evident
- Transformation is a pleasant epiphany marked by upgrades in our lifestyle accessories. It is better to be presented as a victim than to actually having suffered.
- People are good so with just a little effort all differences can be resolved
MLK’s Daughter had one of the best responses.
The lack of specificity in the Pepsi march was telling.
In a recent Google Doodle Google tried to fly the flag on diversity, peace and harmony but such corporate virtue signalling must always brush over the fact that differing perspectives among competing people yields conflict. Many many conflicts, whether large societal ones or loud interpersonal ones.
So many questions emerge not really for Pepsi who is doing what corporate advertisers always do, but for our broader culture and its salvation narratives
- Is it better to play the victim than to actually be one?
- Is our iconography compromised by the shallow fantasy of instant and easy triumph through beauty, sex appeal or mere good intentions?
- Is it fair to simply appropriate the practices of past triumphs for whatever end we wish? Even if it isn’t fair does it matter? Who has the authority to call anyone on it? In Pepsi’s case the motivation to withdraw was exactly the motivation to engage in it, the marketplace. Is the marketplace all we really have left to adjudicate morality? If it sells or words it’s good, and if your stock price goes down its bad.
Pepsi has apologized for itself and to Kendall Jenner and was blamed for apologizing to her.
What does all of this have to do with Palm Sunday?
On Palm Sunday Jesus trades in stock Jewish and Roman cultural and religious iconography in some ironic yet deeply important ways. Jesus comes into Jerusalem in a sense indulging in the shallow tropes of the world of his time.
The march Jesus engineers isn’t first and foremost a protest march but rather a celebration. We might have some of those today if a sports team wins a championship. It’s more VE Day in the streets of NYC.
There is a sense of protest in it because the Romans are still in their fortress in Jerusalem, Herod still has a palace there and the religious leaders at the temple feel firmly in control.
In like a Model
In some ways the story starts like Jesus as a pretty model. He is appropriating ancient symbols and ancient prophesy. The crowd hears it, sees it and loves it. He is their darling. The donkeys were a nod to the Davidic rulers. The donkey also a nod to Zechariah’s prophesy. The people with their “Hosanna” chant called back to ancient Israel.
In some ways the shallow appropriation of past sufferings by the crowd was not unlike a slick Pepsi commercial and Jesus’ permission to do so was reaching through it to the deeper reality that what they were in fact saying was more true than they knew. He IS the king of the city of the Great King. He is in fact THE Great King even though the crowd wouldn’t dare say so because they couldn’t believe that much and the powerful in Jerusalem, the Romans, the Herodians and the religious gate keepers didn’t believe it at all. They allowed it the way our government would allow a march in our streets that says “Peace” “love” and “Join the Conversation”. You might as well organize a march to say “Good is Good and Right is Right”. OK, but so what?
Where Both Pepsi and the Crowd Go Wrong
The criticism of the Pepsi ad were all dead on. This is cheap salvationism in the service of corporate greed. This is the kind of easy multi-culturalism where the white folks get to virtue signal by lining up lots of smiling applauding people of color as they get to play pretty white savior. “The media is getting paid off of black rage.” “Here she comes down like white Jesus.” All the memes with Dr. King and Malcolm X were well deserved.
The Pepsi ad fully embodies the cultural lies we wish to believe. We want to imagine we are the center of the story. We want to imagine a comfortably poignant moment of introspection or connection with some “true self” is all it takes to catapult us to the place of the victor as we make all things new and we’ll look good in the process.
Jesus, however, knows the truth. The crowd has no idea what will bring peace to Israel. How costly, how bloody, how wrong, how painful. Jesus knows all of this and the revelation that the drama the people are participating in in the moment is not what they imagine will compound the pain. Today the crowd shows Hosanna, tomorrow they will shout “crucify him!”
The Pepsi ad exposes, too blatantly apparently, the contemporary myth that all that is required to make for peace is a sort of happy niceness and a smoothing over of a world of pain, hurt and histories of violence and all manner of evil. Pepsi gave us a vehicle to indulge in such a fantasy and it brought outrage. If a hero of color were cast as the victor in the Pepsi story would it have received this outrage or simply celebration? No human being, regardless of the color of their skin can sell that fantasy. Dr. King today is celebrated but he was reviled in his generation by whites and blacks alike for many reasons. Saints are usually easier to live with if they are dead.
This is the way the world is. Jesus, unless he wished to kill his enemies when he rode into Jerusalem would be killed himself.
The false story on top does connect to the truer story below. A hero has come. He has ridden into the city with the celebration of the people but instead of an easy cheesy Pepsi sacrament a new one was made with his body and his blood. The doesn’t evade bloodshed by the people he receives it from the people.
If you see the poverty of our approach to world saving, and you believe the cruciform manner of Jesus’ world saving, how then should you live?
The first thing we need to do is get out of the center of the story. Wasn’t this Jenner and Pepsi’s chief sin? The commercial was supposed to “work” by each of us imagining ourselves in the center through the model avatar. That’s how our entire story industry works. That’s why most of the heroes are white and good looking.
The only safe center of the story is Jesus himself. Why?
- He understand true leadership: Matthew 23:5-12
- He offers himself as our sacrifice, our food, to be consumed by us so that we might live. John 6
He is the only one who is safely in the center. He is the only one that we may have at the center of our lives.