Nov 7, 2005
Rosa Parks died October 24 at the age of 92. She is being memorialized as a courageous, exceptional hero, who with one dramatic act, sparked off the civil rights movement. Speaker after speaker, politicians and celebrities, say everyone owes her a huge debt.
Indeed she was courageous. But this description denigrates the real role and contributions of Rosa Parks. Her refusal to go to the back of the bus in Montgomery Alabama was only a small part of the courage that she – and many thousands of other activists – showed for many years.
Parks is the first to acknowledge this. In her autobiography Rosa Parks: My Story, written at age 79, she speaks with a sense of irony, “As time has gone by, people have made my place in the history of the civil-rights movement bigger and bigger. They call me the Mother and Patron Saint of the Civil Rights Movement.” Parks challenges this approach.
Her resolve to confront the brutal racism in Montgomery Alabama began years before the bus action. As far back as 1943, she made the courageous decision to join the Montgomery branch of the NAACP, where she quickly became secretary. Being active in the NAACP meant taking serious risks. Rosa’s husband, Raymond Parks, was also active in the NAACP. For years he participated in secret meetings, sometimes at their house, around the Scottsboro Case. Members brought their guns to these meetings to protect themselves from the violence of the Klan.
In the 1940s and early 50's, the NAACP recorded numerous local incidents of racist killings, especially of World War II veterans who were demanding their rights. The NAACP tried to provide legal help to young black men falsely accused of raping white women and given a death penalty sentence. Rarely did they win in the courts. And it was extremely hard to get people to overcome their fear and get involved. At times it seemed their efforts were getting nowhere. Parks says, “I remember 1949 as a very bad year. Things happened that people never heard about because they never were reported in the newspapers. At times I felt overwhelmed by the violence and hatred, but there was nothing to do but keep going.”
To “keep going” in the face such an unyielding situation – this took another kind of courage. It was a courage she shared with other people throughout the South who refused in the worst years to accept the dictates of Jim Crow. Because all those unnamed hundreds “kept going,” they paved the way for the movement that erupted in the 1950's.
The Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 was not the first boycott; nor was Parks the first to challenge segregated buses in Montgomery. A bus boycott in Baton Rouge, Louisiana won limited gains two years earlier. Parks describes two young protesters in the months leading up to her action. An 18-year-old young woman who refused to give up her seat to a white person, was arrested. In the spring of 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin said to the driver in a sassy way that “she had already paid her dime and had no reason to move.” When the police came, they dragged her from the bus, handcuffed and arrested her.
By the time Parks refused to follow the bus driver’s orders on December 1, the NAACP had decided to organize a protest. When she too was arrested, they raised the idea of a bus boycott. Long-time supporters sprang into action. Black college teacher Jo-Ann Robinson got her Womens Political Council to print and distribute leaflets all over Montgomery, announcing the boycott. A black newspaper printed it on the front page. On Sunday, black churches encouraged their congregations not to ride the bus on Monday. The Montgomery Improvement Association was set up and the bus boycott was begun.
The first day it was successful. Hundreds of people attended the Monday night meeting to decide whether to continue the boycott. E. D. Nixon, head of the local NAACP, spoke first, saying “You who are afraid, you better get your hat and coat and go home. This is going to be a long drawn out affair.”
That boycott lasted an entire year. The vast majority of the black population of Montgomery was involved in finding alternative ways of getting to and from work. It was a tribute to the organizational work that had been carried out for so many years before. The level of creative organization amounted to a second government in Montgomery. Black cab drivers who owned their own cabs were the first to put themselves forward, agreeing to pick people up at bus stops and charge them only 10 cents – the same as bus fare. Rosa Parks describes, “A sophisticated system was developed with cabs, 20 private cars, and 14 station wagons bought by churches, with pick-up stations and scheduled service from 5:30 a.m. to midnight.”
Parks helped organize the collection and distribution of clothing and shoes donated by people from all over the country. She says, “Many people needed those things because they were out of work. Those who had jobs wore out many pairs of shoes walking to and from work.”
This activity on the part of thousands of un-named black people made it possible to sustain the boycott and finally win results. But it was only one of many actions spreading throughout the South, with various organizations taking the lead, that encompassed a mass movement engaged in struggles for over a decade to wipe Jim Crow laws off the books. Without courageous activists like Rosa Parks, who had toiled for years when nothing seemed possible, that vast movement never could have come into being.
And without the spread of rebellions through the cities of the North, the legal remnants of Jim Crow, North and South, could not have been brought down.