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.

In life, George Floyd was no angel – he had served time in prison for armed robbery. But 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. She was not intending to make a point when she boarded a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 – she obediently 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.

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.

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 joint a bus boycott for an important cause – even if it meant walking five miles to school?

Activities

  1. Design a memorial, like the mural of George Floyd, for Rosa Parks or someone else who accidentally changed history.

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).
Icon
A very famous person or thing seen to represent a set of beliefs or a way of life.
Segregated
Blacks and whites separated – for example, from going into the same buildings or parts of the city – by law.
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
Defiance
Bold disobedience.
Boycott
To refuse to have financial or social relations with a country, organisation, or person as a punishment or protest.
Presumptive
He is assumed to be his party’s nominee, but has not yet been formally elected by his political party
Dismantle
To pull apart; take something to pieces.
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.

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