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Fwd: Rosa Parks 2 RIP

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  • Keith Armstrong
    Activist whose refusal to give up her bus seat ignited the US civil rights movement According to legend, on December 1 1955, a weary black woman in Montgomery,
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 25, 2005
      Activist whose refusal to give up her bus seat ignited the US civil
      rights movement

      According to legend, on December 1 1955, a weary black woman in
      Montgomery, Alabama, sat in the "for whites only" front section of a
      bus and started the civil rights movement. Rosa Lee Parks, who has
      died aged 92, never stopped explaining that this was not really what
      happened. Nonetheless she continued to be presented as a simple soul
      with tired feet - a condescending misinterpretation of a woman who
      was an experienced and respected campaigner for civil rights.

      When Parks was born in Tuskegee, the state of Alabama was rigidly
      segregated. But her mother, a believer in equality and justice, told
      the young Rosa about her grandfather, Sylvester Edwards, who had
      defied racism, and encouraged her to do the same. Determined that her
      daughter would be well educated, she also sent Rosa to Miss White's
      school for girls. In this era, educated black girls could work either
      as clerks or seamstresses and Rosa Parks became skilled in the
      latter. Years later she remembered how racism permeated the details
      of everyday life. Black women would be served last if they tried to
      buy new shoes; when they tried a hat on in a store the saleswoman
      would put a bag inside it.

      In the early 1940s, Rosa Parks and her husband Raymond, a barber,
      whom she had married in 1932, became involved in the Montgomery
      branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured
      People (NAACP), where she set up the youth council. The Montgomery
      NAACP chapter decided to take up segregation on public transport -
      continuing a long tradition of African American direct action on
      buses. Rosa Parks had been ejected from a bus in 1943 when she
      refused to enter through the back door, and became known to drivers,
      who would sometimes refuse to let her on.

      In the late 1940s the Alabama State Conference of NAACP branches was
      formed and Rose Parks became its first secretary. This brought her
      into contact with longstanding civil rights campaigners.

      These included the labour leader A Philip Randolph, who was president
      of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) from 1925 to 1968.
      In 1941 he had led a march of 50,000 against unfair government and
      war industry employment practices, which resulted in the Fair
      Employment Practices Commission. Parks also knew Ella Baker, who had
      worked with the Young Negroes Cooperative League under the 1930s New
      Deal and then organised for the NAACP in the south, becoming field
      secretary in 1940. It was to be Baker who later helped create the
      Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), bringing ideas of
      non-violent direct action and collective leadership to a new

      There was continuity between the NAACP's work during the 1940s and
      the civil rights movement locally in Montgomery. Parks had worked
      closely with the local president of the NAACP in Montgomery, ED
      Nixon. He had also led the local Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
      for 15 years and was president of the Progressive Democrats. The
      emergent civil rights movement was thus linked to a whole range of
      progressive labour and social movements, and individuals often took
      part in several organisations.

      In the early 1950s people were coming to Nixon with their complaints
      and the idea of a boycott was in the air. The first mass bus boycott
      had occurred in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1953 and the same tactic
      was tried in Virginia with some success. In 1954 a group of
      professional black women in Montgomery, the Women's Political Council
      (WPC), led by Jo Ann Robinson, had protested to the mayor about
      segregation on the buses, telling him that feeling was so strong that
      25 local organisations were discussing a boycott.

      Then, early in 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was dragged off a
      bus and arrested. The NAACP was ready to take up her case. Inspired
      by the great victory against segregation in education, which had been
      won in 1954 with the Supreme Court Brown versus Board of Education of
      Topeka decision, they wanted to challenge the law. However Claudette
      Colvin turned out to be pregnant, and they knew this would bring bad

      Parks, by contrast, was married, respectable, quiet and dignified.
      She understood local politics and, moreover, had been encouraged by a
      white civil rights campaigner Virginia Durr, whose husband acted as a
      lawyer for the NAACP, to attend the Tennessee Highlander Folk school
      which taught courses on how to resist segregation.

      Parks left Montgomery Fair, the department store where she did
      repairs on men's clothing, as usual on December 1. It was true that
      she was tired after work and pain in her shoulders, back and neck was
      troubling her. By chance the bus driver happened to be the very man
      who had forced her off the bus back in 1943. She did not, as myth
      would have it, sit in the whites-only front part, but sat beside a
      black man at the back. As more white people got on the driver told
      her to give up her seat. She refused.

      "If you don't stand up, I'm going to call the police," he threatened.
      To which she replied, "You may do that."

      Arrested, found guilty of violating the segregation law and fined,
      she consulted with her husband and her mother and decided that her
      arrest would serve as the test case. ED Nixon set about organising
      the boycott immediately. Jo Ann Robinson and Mary Fair Burks of the
      WPC announced her arrest to the students and teachers at Alabama
      State college, telling them that a boycott was being organised. They
      began mimeographing leaflets and getting them distributed. Nixon
      meanwhile contacted church leaders and progressive ministers,
      including Ralph Abernathy and EN French, who presented demands to the
      bus company on December 5. A coalition of local groups formed the
      Montgomery Improvement Association, which coordinated the boycott.

      On the evening of December 5 thousands of people gathered at the Holt
      Street Baptist church where the young preacher Martin Luther King
      praised Rosa Parks as "one of the finest citizens of Montgomery" and
      called for action in protest against her arrest. His speech, which
      was televised, invoked American democracy, with biblical images of a
      righteous pilgrimage and a commitment to justice and equality for
      all. "We in Montgomery," he proclaimed, "are determined to work and
      fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a
      mighty stream."

      Ninety-eight per cent of Montgomery's black citizens participated in
      the boycott which lasted for 381 days. Nearly 100 people were
      arrested, including Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. In January and
      February 1956, the houses of Nixon and King were bombed. The boycott
      spread to Tallahassee that May. On December 20, the Supreme Court
      supported the decision of a lower court and federal injunctions were
      served on the bus company officials to end segregation. Montgomery's
      buses were integrated on December 21 1956.

      A great victory had been won. But Parks was sacked from her tailoring
      job and, in 1957 left Montgomery for Detroit, following harassment.
      She later became a special assistant to Democratic Congressman John
      Conyers, until her retirement in 1988.

      In 1965, though, she was on the historic march through Montgomery
      when Martin Luther King called for a "march on poverty". And, on
      December 1 1995, the 40th anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott
      was marked by a commemorative ceremony in her honour on the spot
      where she had been arrested.

      She continued to be extremely active, travelling extensively to
      lecture on the civil rights movement and the social and economic
      problems that continued to face black Americans. In 1987 she founded
      the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, which
      aimed to help the young and educate them about civil rights. In
      October 1995, she addressed the Million Man March in Washington, in
      1996 she toured the US and visited South Africa, and in 1999 was
      awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, America's highest civilian

      Her autobiography, Rosa Parks: My Story was published in 1992.
      Interviewed by Brian Lanker in a collection of portraits of black
      women who changed America, I Dream a World, she said: "My desires
      were to be free as soon as I learned that there had been slavery of
      human beings." She carried these desires for freedom with her
      throughout her life.

      Her husband Raymond died in 1977. · Rosa "Lee" Louise Parks, civil
      rights campaigner, born February 4 1913; died October 24 2005

      Sheila Rowbotham Tuesday October 25, 2005

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