About Rosa Parks

Image: Hamilton Grimaldi


Considerations about the militancy of the activist of the struggle for the freedom of black Americans

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery and was arrested. His courageous action spurred a year-long community boycott and helped usher in a new chapter in the struggle for black freedom. It is now one of the best-known stories of the civil rights movement – ​​passed down to schoolchildren across the United States. However, much of what students learn, and much of what most Americans think they know about Parks' position, is wrong. To correct misconceptions, here are ten ways to teach about Rosa Parks:

1 – Rosa Parks was not docile. She had a “life story of being rebellious,” as she put it. As a child, she stayed awake with her grandfather as he watched her house with his shotgun against a Ku Klux Klan attack. She picked up a brick when a white boy threatened to punch her. When her grandmother, who worried about her “speaking big to white people,” scolded her, Parks recounted telling her grandmother, “I'd rather be lynched than live to be mistreated … [and] not be allowed to say 'No. I like that'." In the 1930s and 1940s, Parks was involved in organizing dangerous work—both with her husband, Raymond, on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys, and with ED Nixon, a union organizer for the Scottsboro Boys. Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Carriers) who later became president of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP) of Montgomery, seeking justice for victims of lynchings, rapes and assaults. She hated how "a black militant for [whites] was often ridiculed by members of her own group".

2 – She was also not passive or quiet at important moments. The summer before his arrest, Parks grew tired of meetings between the black community and city officials about bus segregation, which went nowhere: "We'd get a few vague promises and then we'd get lied to." She refused to go to another meeting: "I decided I wasn't going to go anywhere with a piece of paper in my hand asking white people for favors." That December night, when the police got on the bus to arrest her and asked her why she wouldn't move, she didn't shut up. She replied, “Why do you persecute us?”

3 – She wasn't the first to be arrested on a bus in Montgomery. Several black residents resisted segregation on Montgomery buses. When Viola White did so in 1944, she was beaten and fined $10; Her case was still on appeal when she died ten years later. In 1950, police shot and killed Hilliard Brooks, a World War II veteran, when he got on the bus after having a few drinks and refused to reboard through the back door – and the police were called. Witnesses refuted the officer's claims that he acted in self-defense; however, it was not processed. Encouraged by the decision to brown vs. Board of Education from 1954, the Women's Political Council (Women's Political Council) wrote to the mayor of Montgomery that there was a need to change Montgomery's buses or the community would boycott. Then, on March 2, 1955, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on the bus, police arrested Colvin and charged her with three misdemeanors. The black community was outraged and initially mounted some resistance (Parks raised funds for Colvin's case), but ultimately decided against a full campaign on Colvin's behalf, seeing her as too young, aggressive, and emotional. (Despite rumors, Colvin was not pregnant at the time the community decided not to pursue her case, but she did become pregnant in late summer.) The impact of these incidents had piled up—and Montgomery's black community was at a breaking point in December 1955.

4 – This was not your first act of resistance on the bus. Montgomery's segregated buses required black passengers to sit in the back, whites in the front, and a middle section in which black and white passengers could sit (though not together)—and blacks could be asked to make room for each other. that the white passengers could sit down.. The bus drivers carried a gun. Some Montgomery bus drivers made black people pay up front, but then forced them to get off the bus and reboard through the back door (so they wouldn't even pass the white passengers). Parks had been kicked off the bus several times for refusing to follow this practice, including by her own driver, James Blake, who had her arrested that December night. “Over the years, I have rebelled against second-class citizenship. It didn't start when I was arrested,” she declared. “Some people say I was tired” when she refused the driver's order to get to the back of the bus, but as she explained in her autobiography, “The only tiredness I had was tired of giving in.”

5 – It wasn't just a seat on the bus. When Blake told her to give up her seat, Parks thought of Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old boy who had been lynched in Mississippi in August [1955], and the recent acquittal of the two men, Roy Bryant and JW Milam, who they had killed him. Four days earlier, she had attended a packed meeting where the main organizer of the Till case had come to bring the bad news of the acquittal and the need to keep fighting. She thought of the many years she had fought for criminal justice for black men wrongfully accused of crimes and for black women who could not find justice after being raped. She later wrote that when the bus driver said he would have her arrested, she thought, "Let's look at Jim Crow for the criminal that he is, and what he did with a life multiplied millions of times in the United States." It wasn't about sitting next to a white person: “I've never been what you would call an integrationist. I know I was called that (…) Integrating buses would no longer mean equality. Even when there was segregation there was a lot of integration in the South, but it was for the benefit and convenience of the white people, not for us”. Its aim was "to end all forms of oppression". Upon learning of Parks' arrest and her decision to pursue the case, the Women's Political Council called for a one-day boycott, the day Parks would be arraigned in court. Buoyed by the success of that first day, the community at a packed meeting that night decided to extend the boycott. A young reverend, Martin Luther King Jr., gave a rousing speech and would emerge as the leader of the movement. A separate case in federal court was filed, with Colvin as one of the plaintiffs (Parks was not). Three hundred and eighty-two days later, Montgomery buses were desegregated.

6 – She spent more than half her life in the North. Eight months after the successful end of the boycott, still unable to find work and facing death threats, she moved with her husband and mother to Detroit, where she lived for nearly five decades. She called it "from the promised land, which was not." She found “not much difference” between Montgomery and Detroit's housing and school segregation, job exclusion, and policing systems; so she began to challenge racial inequality in the North alongside a growing movement, Black Power. she participated in Black Power Conference (Black Power Meeting) of 1968 in Philadelphia and the Black Political Convention (Black Political Convention) of 1972 in Gary, Indiana, visited the Black Panther School (Black Panther School) and has served on many prisoner advocacy committees from Wilmington Ten (The Wilmington 10) to JoAnn Little and Gary Tyler. “I am in favor of any movement to show that we are dissatisfied,” she explained.

7 – His courage was not just a thing of one day. And she loved the spirit and militancy of young people. In the 1950s, Parks organized the Youth Council (Youth Council) of the Montgomery NAACP, encouraged members to take a strong stand against segregation, and after Colvin's arrest, Colvin became secretary of the Council. Parks asked Colvin to tell her story over and over again to inspire others. Parks believed in youth leadership and young people's need to be heard and treated with dignity. So while she was deeply disturbed by the Detroit uprising of July 1967 – four turbulent days triggered by a police raid on a black nightclub that brought in the National Guard and caused the deaths of 43 people, 33 of whom were black – she understood that “the establishment of white people (…) will antagonize and provoke violence. When young people want to present themselves as human beings and become men, there is always something to reduce them.” She savored the energy and spirit of a new generation of Black Power activists, seeing Black Power take forward many of the issues she has fought for decades.

When young radicals organized a People's Tribune (People's Court) surrounding the police killings of three young black men at the Algiers Motel during the Detroit uprising (after no police were indicted and the media refused to investigate), she agreed to serve on the jury. When o Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) helped build an independent black political party out of local residents in Lowndes County, Alabama, which had the black panther as its symbol, Parks stepped down to support them. And in 1980, she had the pleasure of visiting the Black Panther school in Oakland; students and teachers prepared a play in her honor and talked about her visit for weeks.

8 – Rosa Parks was not a political copy of Martin Luther King, Jr. When the Montgomery bus boycott began, Rosa Parks was 42, a seasoned activist, while Martin Luther King was 26, a young minister pastoring his first church. Parks grew up in a Marcus Garvey family, began her political life running for the Scottsboro Boys alongside her husband, Raymond, and spent the next decade with ED Nixon pushing to turn Montgomery's NAACP into a more activist core. Mentored by legendary organizer Ella Baker, she was inspired by the political views of Highlander Folk School, Septima Clark, and Myles Horton when she attended the adult organizer training school the summer before her arrest. Throughout her life, she believed in the power of organized non-violence and the moral right of self-defence, and described Malcolm X as her personal hero. She and Malcolm X first met in November 1963 because he, marveling at her courage, mentioned to some mutual friends that he wanted to meet her.

9 – It wasn’t a middle-class church lady who dreamed only of heaven and the beyond. Although Parks was demure in demeanor, the Parks family was not middle-class. They were living in Cleveland Courts public housing when the bus protest took place; Raymond was a barber and Rosa was a tailor's assistant, sewing white men's clothes in the Montgomery Fair Department Store. His bus protest plunged the family into a decade of economic instability and deep poverty; both lost their jobs after their bus action and struggled to find steady work over the next decade. In 1965, newly elected Congressman John Conyers hired her to work in his Detroit office. This stabilized the family's situation and provided much-needed health insurance, but they were never able to afford a home of their own. Parks was a woman of deep Christian faith, but for her Christianity demanded justice and action in this world. “Faith without works is dead,” she wrote. Until the end of her life, she believed that there was much more work to be done in the fight for racial and social justice. She told a group of Spelman University students, "Don't give up and don't say the movement is dead."

10 – And those famous photos of her having her fingerprints taken and her police record photo with the number 7053 (…) well, they are not really of her first arrest. There was no fanfare – or photographers – surrounding Parks' first bus arrest. There was nothing to suggest that this would be a turning point in history. Although she wasn't sure she would “get off the bus alive,” she didn't envision her protest as the prelude to something big. She wrote to a colleague a few months later how the community reaction and the bus boycott had been “surprising” to her. In the following months, the city government tried to break the boycott. The police pursued the boycott leaders, and the city indicted eighty-nine of them (including Parks) under an old anti-boycott law. She and ED Nixon reported to be arrested: “Are you looking for me? Well, I'm here." She was photographed having her fingerprints taken that day; Her photo and the photos of others arrested in February 1956 have circulated publicly since they were found in the Montgomery Sheriff's Office in 2004.

Learning about Rosa Parks, who dedicated her life to challenging injustice and who valued the militancy of young people – rather than the docile seamstress of the popular imagination who had her big moment seven decades ago – brings the story of a distant past and provides paths of see where we are today in this country [United States]. Featuring Rosa Parks, the lifelong rebel, takes us beyond the popular narrative of the movement's happy ending with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act to the long and continuing history of racial injustice in schools, security, jobs and housing in America and the desire Parks left us – to keep fighting.

Sixty-four years later, it's time to start teaching Rosa Parks the right way. For more information about Parks's life and activism, as well as primary sources and teaching guides, check out the Rosa Parks Biography: A Resource for Teaching Rosa Parks website at www.rosaparksbiography.org.

*Jeanne Theoharis is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College. Author, among other books, of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.

*Say Burgin is a professor of history at Dickinson College.

Translation: Daiara Gabriel & Sean Purdy.

Originally published on the website History Resources, African American Women in Leadership, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.


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