“Cancel culture” was unheard of in December 1955, but that didn’t make the practice any less pervasive in American culture. Civil rights icon Rosa Parks is known universally for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus 65 years ago. Her small act of resistance sparked a massive bus boycott and changed the United States forever. Parks was arrested and fined $10 for her actions. Less than a year later, on November 23, 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated busing was unconstitutional.
The history books tell the familiar story of a woman standing strong in the face of adversity, but Parks didn’t cease to exist once the Montgomery Bus Boycott ended. We seldom hear about her life after that one courageous act. Like many civil rights leaders of the time, Rosa and her husband Raymond suffered a decade of pre-internet cancel culture. They both lost their jobs and were forced to leave Alabama in search of steady employment. Even living as far away as Detroit, the Parks continued to suffer harassment and threats to their safety. Chronic poverty and extreme stress took its toll on their health. Rosa Parks didn’t have stable income until 1965 when she was hired by Congressman John Conyers after playing a pivotal role in his bid for federal office. The attacks on the Parks family weren’t unique. Organizers like Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, and James Bevel risked violent retaliation for their roles in the movement.
Today public figures like Kanye West, Jimmy Fallon, and Ellen DeGeneres have been canceled. Corporations have rebranded products to be more inclusive and hopefully avoid being canceled. Even private citizens are not exempt from being canceled by social media for their online actions. In February 2021, the small town of Stinnett, Texas was rocked when their police chief went viral for a web of romantic entanglements involving multiple women and accusations of forged legal documents. The police chief has since been arrested, resigned his position, and been served with divorce papers. Russellville had its own viral moment in 2020 when a local daycare made national headlines for banning a child from wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt to school.
According to dictionary.com, cancel culture refers to the popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. In the midst of this online debate, we have failed to acknowledge that canceling has been used to silence dissenting voices long before social media made it a hashtag. The reality is that speaking truth to power has always come at a high price.
In 2019 President Barack Obama spoke on the issue of canceling saying, “That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.”
In small towns across America, the threat of job loss and financial hardship is regularly used to keep vulnerable citizens from speaking out on difficult issues. Most states, including Arkansas, do not protect employees from retaliation over political beliefs. So it comes as no surprise that those who hold a small amount of power, privilege, or influence are often the quickest to threaten a lawsuit or call an employer if they are offended or inconvenienced. Ultimately as a society we cannot address the good and bad of cancel culture until we are willing to also assess our own roles in perpetuating it.