The following opinion column on the true story of Rosa Parks's activism
was first printed in the Keene Sentinel on Tuesday, November 1, 2005.
The Keene Sentinel grants full distribution or reprint rights to this
piece as long as credit for first publication in the Sentinel is given.
If you like this column, please forward it to your email contacts list,
post it on listserves or blogs, or to reprint in organizational
newsletters or other publications. I would love for this fuller story
of her work to be more widely known.
Thank You, Rosa Parks
by Steve Chase
Four years ago, I founded a one-of-a-kind master's program at Antioch
New England Graduate School to train public interest advocates and
grassroots organizers working for environmental protection, corporate
accountability, and social justice. People have occasionally asked me
what inspired me to dream up the Environmental Advocacy and Organizing
program. My answer is always the same: Rosa Parks.
Parks, who died at home last week, became famous in 1955 when she
refused to move to the back of a segregated bus for a white man. She
was immediately arrested, and her act of defiance sparked the
Montgomery Bus Boycott, which won the first major victory against legal
segregation in the South and launched a national movement for civil
People can usually see how Rosa Parks sparked my interest in nonviolent
activism for the common good. What they don't get is how she inspired
my interest in activist training and education.
Like most people, I used to think that Rosa Parks was just a tired,
middle-aged seamstress who got fed up with the indignities of racism on
the evening of December 1, 1955. However, when I was a teenager, an
older Quaker activist told me the real story of Rosa Parks.
For starters, Parks was a seasoned activist, not a novice. She had been
an active member of her local NAACP chapter for over twelve years
before refusing to move to the back of the bus, and she had
participated in many discussions about how to launch a successful
campaign against segregation. Contrary to the conventional story, her
act of civil disobedience was pre-planned and aimed at sparking a
powerful movement for freedom.
Secondly, Parks was a trained activist. The summer before her famous
act of civil disobedience, Parks attended a ten-day activist training
workshop at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. During a radio
interview years later, Studs Terkel asked Parks what role Highlander
played in her decision to act. Parks answered, "Everything."
Highlander Folk School was founded in the 1930s by Myles Horton. His
vision for the school was to bring poor and oppressed people together,
encourage them to grapple with their everyday social problems, provide
an arena for deep political reflection, and, ultimately, provide
training workshops in the skills and strategies of social movement
During the 1930s and the early 1940s, Highlander focused its
educational programs on the southern labor movement. By the early
1950s, Highlander moved into civil rights activism and Horton brought
together blacks and whites interested in confronting the problem of
To deepen the effectiveness of this work, Horton hired Septima Clark,
the School's first black staff member, as his Education Director. A
public school teacher who had been fired and blacklisted because of her
volunteer work with the NAACP, Clark cemented Highlander's ties over
the years with many of the people who eventually became leaders of such
groups as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Mississippi Freedom
At Highlander, these people were encouraged by both Horton and Clark to
take what they learned and apply it in their own communities. As Horton
said to generations of participants at Highlander's training workshops:
"The way to use this information is not to say that we have learned a
lot, and isn't it wonderful and great to have been at Highlander....
You're here to act on it. This is education for action. Now, how are
you going to act on this? Let's just plan what you're going to do when
you go back."
In her own recollection of Parks' first visit to Highlander, Septima
Clark reports how Parks struggled with her fears over taking the kind
of daring action against segregation being discussed by workshop
participants and Highlander's trainers. As Clark remembers it: "Rosa
Parks was afraid for white people to know that she was as militant as
she was. She didn't even want to speak before the whites that she met
at Highlander, because she was afraid they would take it back to the
whites in Montgomery. After she talked it out in that workshop that
morning and she went back home, then she decided that 'I'm not going to
move out of that seat.'"
With her dramatic action a few months later, Parks earned her "diploma"
from Highlander and rightly became revered as the grandmother of the
1960s Civil Rights Movement. Unknown to her, she also inspired the
creation of a two-year activist training program in Keene, New
Hampshire a little over 46 years after her big day.
Thank you, Rosa Parks.
Steve Chase is the director of the Department of Environmental Studies'
Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program at Antioch New England
Reprinted with permission from the Keene Sentinel, November 1, 2005
Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program
Department of Environmental Studies
Antioch New England Graduate School
40 Avon Street
Keene, NH 03431
603-357-3122 ext. 298
For information about the Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program:
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