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Lawbreakers or Lawmakers? How Historical Black Figures Worked Outside of The Law

Note: This is the full version of the article found in our October Print Edition

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed” – Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail

Earlier this year protests were organised worldwide, as a united front against police brutality. It did not matter that globally we were in the midst of a pandemic, Black people were still being targeted and killed by the police. It was a stark reminder that even 50 years on from the civil rights movement, racial prejudices and inequalities are still rife. Not only were the footsteps and cries of protestors heard on the streets, but instead a powerful resistance swept across social media. In response, it wasn’t uncommon to see newspaper headlines relentlessly ask, “Has the Black Lives Matter movements gone too far?”, “Are BLM activists protesting the right way?” What is the right way? People’s refusal to bow to a racist society was framed by the media as “too extreme”. A glance back at history tells us that it was the people who were brave enough to work outside the law that made the world a less hostile place for Black people. 

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Harriet Tubman (1822-1913)

A leading abolitionist and spy, Harriet Tubman was a civil rights activist who founded the Underground Railroad. Born into slavery, Tubman was no stranger to physical violence. Her most severe injury happened in a store where she came across a slave who had left the fields without permission. Tubman was asked to restrain the slave by his overseer. She refused and as a result was struck with a 2-pound weight that was thrown to her head. The scars were lasting.

 Tubman first used the Underground Railroad when she tried to escape slavery in 1849, and she made her way to the free state of Pennsylvania. This freedom invigorated her and encouraged her to help her family and other slaves to escape from slavery via the Underground Railroad. She embarked on many expeditions throughout her life such as the Combahee River Raid which liberated more than 700 slaves in South Carolina. It was Tubman’s unflinching resolute to rescue slaves that left a mark on Black history. 

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Rosa Parks (1913-2005)

On December 5th 1955, Rosa Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus for home. After a long day of work as a seamstress, Parks took a seat in one of the first few rows that were for “coloured” passengers. The Montgomery City Code required all public transportation to be segregated. White passengers were given seats at the front whereas Black passengers had to sit at the back. If the bus got too busy, Black passengers had to give up their seats. 

The bus started to fill up and Parks was asked to give up her seat but she remained seated. The driver demanded, “why don’t you stand up?” to which Parks replied, “I don’t think I should have to stand up”. The driver called the police and Parks was subsequently arrested. 

From December 5th 1955 – the day of Park’s trial – in protest of her arrest, people avoided using public transport. Most of the African American community avoided riding the bus. This came to be known as the Montgomery Bus Boycott which lasted 381 days. The boycott was a success and it ended with segregation on public transport being declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. 


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Martin Luther King Jr  (1929-1968)

Pastor and civil rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr. knew how to get people talking wherever he went. You might know him from his speech “I Have a Dream” (1963). What you probably don’t know about him is that over the course of his life and his fight for justice, he was arrested 29 times. 

One of his most prominent arrests was in 1963. A court had ordered that King could not hold protests in Birmingham, Alabama. Against orders, King and a group of others protested in Birmingham against the treatment of Black people due to discrimination. Everything in Birmingham was segregated, from business to churches to libraries. He was sent to jail for this violation. In jail, King famously penned “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”. An important line in his letter was, “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

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Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)

Anti-apartheid revolutionary and political leader, Nelson Mandela, and former president of South Africa made many sacrifices. In 1944, Mandela joined the African National Congress which fought for Black South Africans to have the same rights as Whites. In 1948, the apartheid (segregation)  was enforced by the South African government to keep White and Black people apart.

 Mandela became the leader of the ANC to speak out against apartheid and held peaceful protests to get rid of the policy.  Due to this, Mandela was imprisoned for treason. It was only after a trial that lasted 5 years, he was set free.

 In 1960, Mandela became the leader of a secret army called, Umkhonto we Sizwe or “Spear of the Nation”. He was hunted by the police and was arrested and accused of plotting to overthrow the government. He was given a life sentence. After spending 18 years in prison in Robben Island, he was finally freed in 1990, by President FW de Clark. It was in 1994 that Mandela became South Africa’s first Black President – a powerful message to the people that had tried to repress him. 

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The Black Panther Party (1966-1982)

Last but definitely not least, The Black Panther Party. Founded by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton in 1966, it was probably the era’s most influential militant group. The group’s purpose was to protect the Black community from police brutality. They directly confronted and challenged the police. They also created survival programmes to organise free breakfasts for over 20,000 children each day as well as a free food program for families and elderly people. They provided much-needed support for low-income Black families. 

However, the party’s very socialist front was not met well by the government. There were many violent encounters with the police that led President Eisenhower in 1969 to declare that they were communists and “one of the greatest threats to the nations internal security”. In the same year, Chicago Police gunned down then party leaders, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark who were asleep in their apartment. 100 bullets were fired by the police with reports stating that only one bullet had come from the Panther’s side. 

They were officially dissolved in 1982, but not before leaving a significant mark on disadvantaged African American communities. 

When Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery using the Underground Railroad, did she go too far? When Nelson Mandela got arrested for peaceful protesting, was he fighting the wrong way? They were painted as lawbreakers in their time, but we know now that these were the people who defined the laws that we know today.

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