Fwd: Rosa Parks 2 RIP
- Activist whose refusal to give up her bus seat ignited the US civil
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
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