History and Memory in Boycott

While I found the ending of Four Little Girls emotionally compelling, I think that the ending of Boycott is more effective at helping us understand the movement as a whole. Four Little Girls ends with an uplifting message of gratitude from Alpha Robertson, and while her words provide an important guide for how to respond to tragedy and keep fighting, they don’t impact the viewer’s understanding of the movement or of history the way that Boycott does. Valarie Smith discusses the ending of Boycott in her article “Meditation on Memory,” noting that it revises the historical photograph of Dr. King and Reverend Abernathy both sitting at the front of a bus after the boycott was lifted. In the film, King refuses to board and instead the viewer is left with an image shot through the back window of the bus of King standing alone in the road. Smith says that this image references his assassination and serves as a reminder that his leadership during the boycott “launched him into the status, but also the isolation, of a remarkable public career and legendary place in history” (538).  The moment allows the viewer to reflect on King’s place in history as both as a man isolated by his work and a legendary historical figure.

Leaders of the boycott waiting for a bus following the end of the boycott in December 1956

In revising the depiction of a historical moment, the ending also serves as a reminder that history is constructed by the people who tell it. Rather than showing King on the bus as a victorious leader enjoying the results of his work, the film shifts the narrative away from this tidy ending, allowing the viewer to think more about King as a person and the Civil Rights Movement past the boycott. The way the film plays with time at the end has a similar effect. Just before the credits roll, King is shown walking down the street in the 21st century. Smith writes that this anachronism “reminds us that acts of memory are always the product of the profound and inextricable connections between the needs and demands of the present and the events of the past” (540). Placing King in the future makes the viewer think about those connections between past and present as well as how we remember King and the movement. His presence in the modern day helps the film extend past the story of the boycott and into the injustices that still exist today.

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