But wait a minute. Which Rosa Parks are they talking about? Is it the simple standard, mythic and inaccurate portrait of Parks or the more accurate and more complicated portrayal of the civil rights leader? So will the real Rosa Parks please stand up.
Let me briefly relate the standard, largely inaccurate version of Parks’ story.
“Rosa Parks was tired…” That phrase appears in almost every retelling of the story of 1 December 1955. Rosa Parks was tired, the story goes; she had no idea that she was about to do something important. Pat Rediger writes in Great African Americans in Civil Rights: “On that famous day when she was arrested, it would have been much easier for Rosa to give up her seat. Three other black women who were sitting beside her did. (Actually, two black women and one black man.) She could have avoided being arrested, fingerprinted, and sent to jail. But Rosa was tired. Her back was sore from pressing pants all day at work, and she was tired of racism”
We like this story because it is so simple and so human. We see that Rosa Parks is just like us, an ordinary person with a regular job, a person who is tired at the end of a day’s work. And then, tired as she is, she resists when someone tries to force an injustice on her. But Rosa Parks says no. That is not the way it was at all. She later recounted: “I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day…. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
So Rosa Parks was told to give her seat to a white man, refused to do so, and was arrested. Then Martin Luther King found out what Parks had done, and he made a speech that inspired other black people to stand by Parks. The next day, all across Montgomery, Alabama black people refused to ride the bus. After a year, the law was changed. It was as simple as that.
The lesson of the story, when it is told this simply, is this: If you just do the right thing, you can change the world. But that lesson is dangerous because the world does not work like that. It did not work like that for Rosa Parks – not when you know the real details – and it is not likely to work like that for those who try to fight injustice in their own lives.
For people to understand how the Montgomery bus boycott really worked, they need to know that succeeding in the fight against injustice did not just take individual courage: it also took organization.
Many of us have learned the story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott as a neat, tidy story of individual heroism. Rosa Parks, a seamstress tired after a hard day at work courageously sat down, a young preacher, Dr. Martin Luther King, charismatically stood up. Together, they inspired people to march, and change happened.
But, to paraphrase Shakespeare, that story is the stuff that myths are made on. Understanding the truth beyond the myths can help us better understand current injustices. So, here is the Rosa Parks story as you may never have heard it before – and there is a wonderful piece of irony in the story. I have saved it for the end.
Let me begin with Rosa Louise McCauley, born 4 February 1913. She was the granddaughter of slaves. Her grandfather taught her courage during a wave of racial violence in 1919. He sat on his porch with a shotgun telling young Rosa that he dared the “Ku-Kluxers” to come. Rosa McCauley was soft-spoken but strong-willed and a great student. When a white boy on roller skates tried to push her off the sidewalk, she pushed back. His mother threatened to have her arrested. Another time she threatened a white boy who taunted her on the way to school with a brick.
In 1931, Rosa McCauley met Raymond Parks, a self-taught, politically active barber, and married him in 1932. He was known for his willingness to stand up to racism, and was the first man she deemed radical enough to marry. He was active in the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, a group of nine black men falsely accused of raping two white women, eight of whom were sentenced to death. The Communist Party of America financed their defense and Raymond Parks became an activist in the effort, delivering food to the young men in prison and organizing protests.
Rosa and Raymond Parks had thought the NAACP was too elitist and cautious, but after learning a friend was involved, Rosa Parks went to her first meeting in December, 1943. She was the only woman there, was asked to take notes, and was elected group secretary that day, a position she held for the next twelve years. As secretary, she recorded countless cases of unfair treatment, brutality, sexual violence, and lynchings.
In 1942, Edgar Daniel Nixon (known as E. D. Nixon) entered the picture. Nixon came to the Parks home to register them to vote. A member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union, Nixon had led a voter registration drive in 1940 when he increased the rolls of African American voters from thirty-one to more than seven hundred. In 1945, he ran for President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the first working class man to do so. Parks said that while Nixon was not formally educated, he was sophisticated in ways that mattered. She considered him the first person beside her husband and family who was truly committed to freedom.
Through the NAACP, Rosa Parks attended NAACP events in Jacksonville, Florida, Atlanta, Georgia, and Washington D.C. where she received leadership training from legendary organizer Ella Baker, the NAACP’s Director of Branches. Baker became a role model and mentor to Parks, and encouraged her to create a NAACP Youth Council in Montgomery.
Another figure important to understanding the Rosa Parks story was Fred Gray, at the time a twenty-four year-old attorney, the twelfth African American lawyer in Alabama and the second in Montgomery. Rosa Parks took him under her wing, lunching with him regularly and having him involved in the NAACP and civil rights cases.
In addition to her husband, to E. D. Nixon, and to Fred Gray were Clifford and Virginia Durr, Montgomery’s leading white liberals. One day, Rosa Parks was working for Virginia Durr when they discussed her NAACP work. Virginia Durr suggested Parks attend the Highlander Folk School in New Market, Tennessee where integrated groups of activists developed their leadership skills and civil disobedience. Clifford Durr was a board member and the Durrs raised money to send Parks to a two-week workshop on civil rights. Because it was dangerous to be caught going to Highlander, Virginia Durr rode the bus to New Market with Rosa Parks.
At Highlander, Parks and forty-seven other diverse activists lived in an integrated community and developed their strategies and tactics as leaders. She came to admire Highlander director Myles Horton’s spirit and sense of humor. She was also in awe of Septima Clark, the lead instructor, who like Ella Baker, became a role model and a mentor for her as a woman activist. The workshop rejuvenated Parks, but she was pessimistic about the prospects of a mass movement in Montgomery.
While at Highlander, Claudette Colvin, the fifteen year-old secretary of her Youth Council, was on her mind. On 2 March 1955, Colvin had refused to move to the back of a bus and was arrested. Her arrest outraged the community. While Rosa Parks and Virginia Durr raised money for her case, the male leaders in town were concerned that she was too dark-skinned, poor, and young to be a sympathetic plaintiff to challenge segregation. The police also charged her with assaulting officers rather than with violating segregation laws, which limited their ability to appeal. She also became pregnant around the time of her arrest, and her legal team thought an unwed mother would attract too much negative attention in a public legal battle.
On 21 October 1955, eighteen year-old Mary Louise Smith, another Youth Council member, refused to move to the back of a bus and was arrested. She was also considered too poor and young to be sympathetic.
Then on Thursday afternoon, 1 December 1955, Rosa Parks, the Assistant Tailor at Montgomery Fair Department Store, boarded a Montgomery city bus and took her seat in the “colored” section. On the city buses of Montgomery, Alabama, the front ten seats were permanently reserved for white passengers. Rosa Parks was seated in the first row behind those ten seats. When the bus became crowded, the bus driver instructed Parks and the other three passengers seated in that row – all African Americans – to vacate their seats for the white passengers boarding. Eventually, the three others moved, while Parks remained seated, arguing that she was not in a seat reserved for whites. Joseph Blake, the driver, believed he had the discretion to move the line separating black and white passengers. The law was actually somewhat murky on that point, but when Parks defied his order, Blake called the police. This same bus driver, James Blake, had thrown Parks off his bus in 1943 for refusing to move. She said “I had felt for a long time that if I was ever told to get up so a white person could sit, that I would refuse to do so.” Officers Day and Mixon came and promptly arrested her.
Immediately, E.D. Nixon – her friend, coworker, and fellow activist at the NAACP – was notified, and so was Fred Gray, the young African-American lawyer who would handle the case. Gray was the same lawyer who had previously agreed to handle Claudette Colvin’s case if Nixon had chosen to carry that case forward. Nixon and Gray agreed that in Rosa Parks they had a solid citizen around whom the community could rally, and her long activism in the NAACP convinced them that she knew the importance of her case and possessed the courage and commitment the situation would require.
Later that night, Gray phoned his friend Jo Ann Robinson, president of the three hundred-member Women’s Political Council. Robinson started phoning other activists and they agreed that Rosa Parks was just the right sort of person – outwardly ordinary and mild-mannered, inwardly steadfast – around whom a bus boycott could be organized to protest the law. After making her phone calls, Robinson stayed up until dawn with a mimeograph machine, creating over five thousand fliers that would be distributed over the weekend to churches, schools, bars, stores, and private homes.
The next morning, E.D. Nixon phoned Martin Luther King Jr. and other black ministers in Montgomery. Nixon warned them that he wanted to take a segregation case to the Supreme Court, and asked them to organize the support of Montgomery’s black church congregations. King, a young man new to Montgomery and to his congregation, was reluctant to make waves so early in his tenure, but Nixon and the other pastors convinced him that, as an outsider, he had the advantage of not having made any local enemies yet. King agreed to head the effort. He and the other ministers immediately began to use their congregations to mobilize public support for Rosa Parks. She would not be ignored. She would not be alone. Anything that happened to her would happen in the spotlight of public attention. Every black person in Montgomery would know her story.
On Monday morning, when Rosa Parks walked into the courthouse, five hundred supporters stood outside to cheer her. Monday evening, when King and the Reverend Ralph Abernathy arrived at the special boycott meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church, they found four thousand people jammed into the church and crowded onto the lawns and surrounding alleys and streets. And, thanks to the fliers, no blacks rode the Montgomery buses that day. Ultimately, the boycott was extended and the African American community of Montgomery stayed off city buses until 20 December 1956, following the United States Supreme Court ruling in Browder v. Gayle, which affirmed a lower court’s ruling that segregated seating on public buses was unconstitutional.
What Rosa Parks did was a spontaneous act of courage, but the only reason her individual act made a difference was because activists organized countless other acts of support. Does Rosa Parks sound like the accidental activist we have learned about in popular culture – the tired seamstress who just wanted to rest her feet after a hard day at work? No. She was an experienced civil rights leader. She often said that the only thing she was tired of was being segregated and mistreated.
And – there is a bit of delicious irony in all of this. I suspect that the Republican candidate who stated that it would be “an honor that would be entirely appropriate” to have Rosa Parks’ portrait on the $10 bill, might be surprised to learn that Parks sat on the national board of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, one of the GOP’s biggest political enemies.
Senator Ted Cruz, ironically, is currently leading the Republican attack on Planned Parenthood, trying to pressure his colleagues in the Senate to threaten a government shutdown to end federal funding for the family planning provider.
Parks’ role on Planned Parenthood’s national board is not the only bit of her history that might make Republicans uncomfortable. She was also influenced by the Communist movement, which laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement in Alabama. In her younger years, she attended Communist Party meetings with her husband, though neither she nor her husband ever joined.
That is the real story of Rosa McCauley Parks. And now you know the whole story, not just the myth.