Saturday, June 23, 2018

Networks and Religion: Political Participation and Civic Engagement

On Thursday, December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus and sat in the last seat open in the bus’s “colored section.” A few stops later, the white section filled up, and a white man was left standing in the aisle. The bus driver asked Parks and three other African Americans, who were sitting in the colored section’s front row, to move. All but Parks complied, and she was soon arrested.

It was not the first time she had refused to give up her seat; in fact, the driver who had her arrested in 1955 had kicked her off the bus twelve years before, but for various reasons, this time was different. Parks's arrest set in motion a series of events that helped give birth to the Civil Rights movement. A local African American leader, E. D. Nixon, first posted bail for Parks and then called Jo Ann Robinson, an English professor at Alabama State University (a historically black university) and a member of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, to tell her what happened. Robinson, who chaired the church’s political affairs committee, called several other women who were both on the committee and the faculty at Alabama State, and together they printed a leaflet protesting Parks’s arrest and called on Montgomery’s African American community to not to ride the city’s buses the following Monday. Robinson called E. D. Nixon back and told him what they were doing. Dixon thought a boycott was a great idea and agreed to organize a meeting at her church on Friday, but he called her new pastor, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., just to make sure that it was okay.

News of the Parks’s arrest and the upcoming meeting spread quickly. King phoned several of the ministers in town, Nixon reached out to many of Montgomery’s civic leaders, and rank-and-file African Americans called family, friends, and neighbors. And,
by early [Friday] afternoon the arrest of Mrs. Parks was becoming public knowledge. Telephones began to ring in almost rhythmic succession. By two o’clock an enthusiastic group had mimeographed leaflets concerning the arrest and the proposed boycott, and by evening these had been widely circulated. (King 1958:37)
Approximately 50 African American leaders attended the meeting, and they adopted a resolution that was essentially a condensed version of the leaflet drafted by Robinson and her colleagues. It urged Montgomery’s African Americans on Monday to not “ride the bus to work, to town, to school, or any place,” and if they worked, “take a cab, or share a ride, or walk.” The resolution also invited them to “come a mass meeting on Monday at 7:00pm, at the Holt Street Baptist Church for further instruction” (Branch 1988: 133).

The Montgomery Bus boycott illustrates the importance that social ties play in connecting people to various types of collective action. News of Parks’s arrest and the boycott spread primarily through social ties, most of which were church ties. As Rodney Stark (2004: 600-601) notes:
Jo Ann Robinson and her associates, who launched the initial call for a bus boycott, not only were friends and members of the same faculty but belonged to the same church. All served on the same political affairs committee of that church—and their pastor was none other than Martin Luther King, Jr. When E. D. Nixon organized a meeting of African American clergy at King’s church, not only did he know all of them, but they all knew one another well. And every one of those mentioned above was well acquainted with the secretary of the Montgomery Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—Rosa Parks. Moreover, for most African Americans in Montgomery, the decision to join the boycott was not an individual act so much as it was a collective action by members of closely knit church groups.
Scholars have long recognized the important role that social networks play in connecting people to various types of civic engagement and collective action. For example, Beyerlein and Sikkink (2008) showed that individuals who attend church regularly were more likely to volunteer for 9/11 relief efforts than were those who did not. Similarly, Lewis, MacGregor, and Putnam (2013) found that after controlling for religious tradition, religious attendance, number of friends, and sociability, religious social networks have a positive effect on volunteering, informal giving, attending public meetings, participating in a political activity, and the number of political activities in which people participate.


Beyerlein, Kraig and David Sikkink. 2008. "Sorrow and Solidarity: Why Americans Volunteered for 9/11 Relief Efforts." Social Problems 55(2):190-215.

Branch, Taylor. 1988. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963. New York: Simon and Schuster.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. 1958. Strive toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Lewis, Valerie, Carol Ann MacGregor and Robert D. Putnam. 2013. "Religion, Networks, and Neighborliness: The Impact of Religious Social Networks on Civic Engagement." Social Science Research 42:331-46.

Stark, Rodney. 2004. Sociology: Internet Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

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