The man who changed history is laid to rest

George Floyd: A man kneels in front of the mural in Houston. © Getty

Is George Floyd the Rosa Parks of our time? When Parks refused to give up her seat, she had no idea she would become a catalyst for sweeping change. Now, Floyd looks set to do the same.

The scenes in George Floyd’s home city of Houston yesterday brimmed with emotion. As people gathered for the funeral of the victim of police brutality, bouquets of flowers were piled high at the Fountain of Praise Church.

Others were laid in front of an impromptu memorial – a mural showing Floyd with angel’s wings – as mourners knelt in silent prayer.

His death has turned him into a symbol of the struggle for black emancipation which is recognised across the world. He has unintentionally become part of history.

Rosa Parks also became an icon of black rights by accident. Though she had been active in the civil rights movement for over a decade at the time, she was not intending to make a point when she boarded a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 – she avoided the seats reserved for white people.

Only once those seats were full, and the driver told her to give up hers, did she choose defiance. Her arrest led to a year-long boycott of public buses, which resulted in a change of the law.

The Welsh sailor Robert Jenkins certainly did not expect to have a war named after him when Spanish officers boarded his ship in 1731 and cut off his ear as a punishment for smuggling.

Eight years later, the British government, after a long trade dispute with Spain, used the incident as an excuse for open hostilities. The War of Jenkins’ Ear lasted for nine years.

Nor did the Belgian footballer Jean-Marc Bosman expect to change the face of international sport when he demanded a transfer from RFC Liège to a French club. Liège’s refusal led to a ruling in 1995 by the European Court of Justice which allowed the free movement of players between countries, and ended restrictions on the number of foreign players a team could field.

There have even been accidental monarchs. Lady Jane Grey had no thought of becoming Queen of England in 1553 until her dying cousin Edward VI named her as his successor in preference to his older sister, Mary. Jane was soon overthrown and executed by Mary for taking the crown, though she insisted that “touching the procurement and desire thereof by me or on my behalf, I do wash my hands thereof in innocency”.

Is George Floyd the Rosa Parks of our time?

Seismic shift?

Yes, say some – including the presumptive presidential candidate Joe Biden. Though there have been many black victims of police brutality in the US before, none have caused the same degree of outrage across the world. In Minneapolis, where Floyd died, the city council has already voted to dismantle the police department and replace it with a new system of public safety. This is just the beginning.

No, say more cautious types: we have seen so many killings before and, ultimately, they change nothing. In the words of the social scientist Kenneth Clark, commenting on the Kerner Commission Report on racial unrest in the 1960s, “It is a kind of Alice in Wonderland with the same moving picture shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.”

You Decide

  1. Would you join a bus boycott for a just cause – even if it meant walking five miles to school?
  2. Is history determined more by outstanding individuals or by mass movements?

Activities

  1. Design a memorial, like the mural of George Floyd, for one of the other people mentioned in this article.
  2. Imagine you can travel back in time to change one event in history. Write a two-page diary entry about your experience.

Some People Say...

“There aren’t any great men. There are just great challenges that ordinary men like you and me are forced by circumstances to meet.”

William Halsey (1882-1959), American admiral

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Martin Luther King made an important distinction when he wrote in his book, Stride Toward Freedom, that Rosa Parks’s arrest was the catalyst rather than the cause of the protests that followed. “The cause lay deep in the record of similar injustices. Actually, no one can understand the action of Mrs Parks unless he realises that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, I can take it no longer.”
What do we not know?
Whether the recommendations of the Kerner Commission Report will finally be followed. The report called for expanded aid to African-American communities, and programmes to encourage the integration of black people into the rest of society. Unless drastic and costly action was taken at once, it said, there would be a “continuing polarisation of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values”.

Word Watch

Houston
The largest city in Texas, it is best known as the home of the flight-control centre for America’s space programme.
Impromptu
Not planned in advance. It is also a term for a piece of music involving improvisation.
Emancipation
The process of being set free from legal, social, or political restrictions; liberation.
Rosa Parks
As a highly respected middle-aged woman, Parks was seen by civil-rights leaders as the ideal person to challenge the state’s segregation laws. When she died in 2005, she became the first woman to ‘lie in honour’ (a special ceremony, in which private citizens have their casket placed in the US Capitol Rotunda for public viewing).
Montgomery
A city largely built on the profits of the cotton and slave trades. It was also home to Martin Luther King, who led the bus boycott
Boycott
To refuse to have financial or social relations with a country, organisation, or person as a punishment or protest. Captain Boycott was a land agent in 19th-Century Ireland, who treated tenants so badly that shops refused to serve him and people would not work for him.
Lady Jane Grey
Known as “the nine-day queen” because her reign was so short, Jane was 15 when she became queen. She was chosen by Edward because he wanted a devout Protestant to succeed him, whereas Mary was a Catholic.
Edward VI
The son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, he became king at the age of nine, but died six years later. Because he was so young, many of his advisers tried to manipulate him for their own ends.
I do wash my hands thereof in innocency
Before she was executed, Jane said that she had never wanted the throne of England.
Presumptive
He is assumed to be his party’s nominee, but has not yet been formally nominated or elected by his political party
Kerner Commission
Otto Kerner (1908-1976) was a lawyer from a Czech immigrant family. As governor of Illinois, he prioritised equal access to jobs and housing, and campaigned for an increase in the number of black army officers.

Subjects

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