This past week’s episode of “Doctor Who” was co-written (with Chris Chibnell) by the phenomenally talented Malorie Blackman, author of Noughts and Crosses and British Children’s Laureate from 2013-2015, and concerned the 1955 Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, catalyzed by Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus and her subsequent arrest. The episode was of course fantastic, tense and taut in its plotting, horrifying in its historical details, and deeply emotional. It is good for the audience of “Doctor Who” to be reminded that there was a time, not so long ago, when giving a white lady back her glove could get a Black kid threatened with lynching. (Now, as nine-year-old Jeremy Harvey knows, it “only” results in the police being called: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2018/10/13/black-childs-backpack-brushed-up-against-woman-she-called-report-sexual-assault/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.284fbbbe112d.) In typical “Doctor Who” fashion, the episode contains didactically-delivered history, with the Doctor writing up facts on the wall of a whites-only motel as if it were a schoolroom blackboard and her companion Yas, who is mistaken for a Mexican person in 1955 Montgomery, researches details about the bus boycott in a banker’s lamp-lit library. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I’m pleased to see the show tackling these historical events.
The episode makes a generalization (I’ll not call it an error, given that it is impossible to deliver all the history of a single event in the space of fifty minutes) that turns Rosa Parks’ story into a mythic one; and it also fails to connect Parks’ story to other histories—particularly those in Britain itself.
The generalization is that Rosa Parks made her decision not to stand up on the bus by herself. In my own childhood, Parks was described as being too tired to get up; recent children’s books have done better about correcting that idea. Rosa Parks: My Story by Parks herself, with the assistance of Jim Haskins (Puffin 1999) states firmly several times that Parks was tired, but not physically. Even the back cover proclaims, “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” The “Doctor Who” episode does not make this error; the depiction of Parks shows a quietly determined woman, not a tired and elderly one. But the idea that the Doctor and her companions had to make sure that Parks got on that bus, that night, or the racists would win (and, as the time-traveling villain says to the Doctor’s Black companion Ryan, “your kind” will stay in their place) suggests that the bus boycott was down to the actions of a single woman. I do not wish to take away from Parks’ courage, but just as in “Doctor Who” she had the support of the Doctor and her companions as she took her stand, Parks in real life did not make a random decision that night: she did not ride that bus alone.
Parks was in fact the secretary of the local NAACP chapter; she was an advisor to the chapter’s youth group, whose members included 15-year-old Claudette Colvin. Colvin had, the previous March, been arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white person, but because she was young, unwed and pregnant, the NAACP did not see her as a suitable person around whom to organize a boycott—something they had long planned. Parks had been moved to take a stand in part because of the case of Emmett Till, whose murderers had recently been set free; a rally at the Dexter Street Baptist Church (Martin Luther King, Jr’s church) four days prior to Parks’ action had been organized to discuss how to respond to the violence against Black people and specifically discussed Till’s case. The “Doctor Who” episode mentions both Till and a “movement”, but the specific connections are not made clear. This is, I think, unfortunate, because community organization was key to many of the successes of the Civil Rights Movement in America.
Also, I think the episode missed an opportunity to connect Parks’ story with the wider African diasporic community. At the beginning of the episode, Ryan says in response to the question, who was Rosa Parks, “She was the first Black woman to drive a bus”. When chastised by Yas, he shrugs and says he didn’t pay attention to her story in school because Parks was American. The episode works to show how “Rosa Parks changed the world” and thus should be important to all viewers—but this doesn’t really address Ryan’s complaint. At the conclusion of the episode, the Doctor tells them that not only did Parks change the world, she changed the universe; she then shows them an asteroid named after Parks. I get the science fiction connection, but it might have been more powerful—and more relevant to Ryan—if the Doctor had explained how Parks’ action had, in 1963, inspired Bristol resident and Black Briton Paul Stephenson to organize the Bristol Bus Boycott, protesting the “colour bar” that kept Black Britons from becoming city bus drivers. Stephenson writes about how, “Seeing what was happening in the USA I decided we should draw more attention to what was happening here with black people, particularly in Bristol. I then decided to take on the Bristol Bus Company because it was a symbol of all that was wrong with Bristol as it advocated racism, defended racism and was the most notorious racist employer in the city” (Memoirs of a Black Englishman 51). The boycott, which was successful, led not only to Afro-Caribbean drivers being hired, but Indian and Pakistani drivers (who were also, at the time, considered Black). In fact, the first driver to be hired was Raghbir Singh, a Punjabi. Bringing this connection to Parks’ story up could therefore have connected Black British history with Parks’ efforts—and also shown how communities of colour, including the communities that Doctor Who companions Ryan and Yas belong to, worked together for change.
As I said, though, I thoroughly enjoyed the episode, and teared up at the end like many other sentimental viewers (https://metro.co.uk/2018/10/21/doctor-who-fans-left-sobbing-and-inspired-by-rosa-parks-episode-i-have-literal-goosebumps-8061149/). I can only hope Blackman will get more chances to write for “Doctor Who”—and that next time, she will introduce her viewers to some Black British heroes. Mary Seacole and Claudia Jones, anyone?