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Rosa Parks was born February 4, 1913. Today would have been her one hundredth birthday. Mrs. Parks passed away on October 24, 2005. She is often remembered solely for being the woman who was the symbol for the Montgomery Bus Boycott by refusing to give up her seat to a White person in December 1955. She and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. are remembered as icons of non-violence. This emphasis on passivity ignores the steadfast resistance Mrs. Parks had against injustice. In a past moment of verbal clarity, Prof. Cornel West described the media as participating in the Santa Clausification of King. Mrs. Parks has become akin to Mrs. Claus in this media fiction of the passive participant in the Civil rights movement. The truth is that both Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. were much more combative than the current media portrayal would lead one to believe.
The Rosa Parks Museum at Troy State University in Montgomery, Alabama will host a 100th birthday celebration at 6:00 P.M. on February 4, 2013.
Prelude to the Montgomery Bus Boycott- Resisting Discrimination in Public Transportation
Before discussing the more fiery side of Rosa Parks’ activism, let me outline a brief history of the resistance to segregated seating on public transportation.
Elizabeth Jennings (1854)
Elizabeth Jennings, a pastor’s daughter, served as the organist for the First Colored American Congregational Church on Sixth Street near New York City’s Bowery. She was running late on Sunday July 16, 1854, so instead of walking Jennings and friend Sarah Allen hailed the first horse-drawn streetcar that approached the Pearl and Chatham Street stop, not taking the time to look for a placard stating “Negro Persons Allowed On This Car.” As soon as the two men got on, the conductor demanded that they get off. Jennings refused to leave and told the conductor, "I was a respectable person, born and raised in New York, did not know where he was born ... and that he was a good for nothing impudent fellow for insulting decent persons while on their way to church." The Irish conductor tried to remove Jennings from the car. Noting the struggle an NYPD officer threw Jennings off the trolley, smashing her bonnet and soiling her clothes. New York City at the time was as backwards as Rosa’ Parks Montgomery.
Jennings had grown up in a community of abolitionists. Her father, Thomas Jennings, was a prominent tailor who had founded a society that provided benefits to African-Americans and was a founder of the Abyssinian Baptist Church which later relocated to Harlem. The church she attended had been founded by a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. Talks at First Colored American Congregational altered between discussion of Biblical text and abolishing Slavery. Through her extended family, letters detailing the incident were sent to abolitionist Horace Greeley’s New York Daily Tribune and Frederick Douglass’ Paper. Her father contacted a young lawyer, Chester Arthur, who would later become President after the assassination of James Garfield in 1881. Though only recently admitted to the bar, Arthur won the discrimination case against the streetcar owner, the Third Avenue Railway Company. The streetcars were integrated. Jennings went on to establish the first kindergarten for Black children in New York City.
Ida B. Wells (1884)
Well known journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B Wells was also a pioneer in fighting discrimination in publication transportation. On May 4, 1884, a conductor ordered Wells was ordered to give up her seat on a Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad car and move to the smoking car already crowded with other passengers. The year before the Supreme had ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 which banned racial discrimination in public accommodations was unconstitutional... Several railroad companies continued illegal racial segregation of their passengers, especially when traveling in the South.
Wells refused to give up her seat, 71 years before the Rosa Parks. The conductor and two men dragged Wells out of the car. When she returned to Memphis, she hired an African-American attorney to sue the railroad. Wells won some money in the argument but some thoughts were later over-turned. Wells also became a public figure in Memphis when she wrote a newspaper article for The Living Way, a black church weekly, about her treatment on the train. She won her case on December 24, 1884, when the local circuit court granted her a settlement of $500. The railroad company appealed to and the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the lower court's ruling in 1887. It concluded, "We think it is evident that the purpose of the defendant in error was to harass with a view to this suit, and that her persistence was not in good faith to obtain a comfortable seat for the short ride. Wells was ordered to pay court costs.
Irene Morgan (1944)
Eleven years prior to Mrs. Parks’ protest, 27-year-old Baltimorean Irene Morgan refused to relinquish her seat on an interstate Greyhound bus in Gloucester County, Virginia headed back to Baltimore in July 1944. The bus driver stopped the bus in Middlesex County, Virginia. The driver summoned the sheriff. Ms. Morgan kicked tore up the warrant of arrest, kicked the arresting sheriff in the groin and struggled with a deputy sheriff. Ms. Morgan lost her case against segregation laws in local and state courts. She appealed the case to the Supreme Court. In Irene Morgan v the Commonwealth of Virginia, on June 3, 1946 the Supreme Court ruled 6-1 that discrimination of seating on interstate buses was illegal. Thurgood Marshall was a co-counsel. The victory led to the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation in which Black and White protestors rode buses together South where there was still resistance to obeying the Supreme Court ruling. The protestors chose states in the Upper South, fearing more violence from law enforcement in states in the Deep South. In some cases, Blacks rode in front and Whites in the back. In other cases, Blacks and Whites rode side-by-side. Both seating arrangements went against Southern tradition. Bayard Rustin was among the protestors and he, along with others, was arrested, jailed and sentenced to a chain gang in North Carolina. Rustin was sentenced to 30 days on the chain gang. The Whites arrested faced a more severe sentence of ninety days. The sentencing judge wanted to make sure that the White protestors got his message stating:
"It's about time you Jews from New York learned that you can't come down here bringing your niggers with you to upset the customs of the South. Just to teach you a lesson, I gave your black boys thirty days (on a chain gang) and I give you ninety."
Ms. Morgan’s defiance was an important step in the fight for equal rights. Years later, she remarked, "When something's wrong, it's wrong. It needs to be corrected." Her story was lost to history for decades until a PBS documentary in 1996 detailed the Journey of Reconciliation. She was honored at the 350th anniversary of Gloucester County, Virginia in 2000. President Bill Clinton awarded Irene Morgan the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2001. Irene Morgan died August 10, 2007.
The Female Activists of Montgomery, Alabama
Claudette Colvin (March 1955)
Nine months prior to Mrs. Parks’ well-known protest, 15 year-old Montgomery, Alabama native Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on a Crown Heights downtown bus in Montgomery on March 2, 1955. Colvin was returning home from Booker T. Washington High School. Colvin was still thinking about a school paper she had just written about the inability of Black department store patrons to try on clothing because they were not allowed to use the dressing rooms. She sat in a section that required Blacks to give up their seats to White bus passengers. Blacks were to move to the back of the bus or stand. Colvin was arrested and convicted of violating the segregation law and assault. The assault was likely “talking back to a White person by asserting her Constitutional rights prior to the arrest. Colvin’s case was combined with those of other Black women who had been discriminated against on Montgomery city buses. Colvin notes that the bus boycott planning was underway before the involvement of Dr. Martin Luther King. The women were taking action. One possible reason that Colvin was not made the symbol of the movement because she was a teen with an out of wedlock pregnancy with a married man. Others have suggested that her dark skin color made her a less appealing symbol for the boycott.
Aurelia S. Browder (April 1955)
Aurelia Browder refused to obey the seating segregation laws and was arrested in April 1955 Browder was involved in attempts to repeal the poll tax and fought against voter suppression. She was the lead plaintiff in a class action case argued in the Supreme Court Browder v Gayle. Browder was a local businesswoman. Gayle was the mayor of Montgomery, Alabama. In June 1956, a District Court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional. Aurelia Browder died February 4, 1971.
Mary Louise Smith (October 1955)
Eighteen year-old Mary Louise Smith refused to give up her seat to a White person on October 21, 1955, forty days before Rosa Parks. Her father paid her fine and the arrest was known only to her family and neighbors. She was made part of the class action lawsuit that went to the Supreme Court.
Sue MacDonald (?)
Other than a picture, I was unable to find much detail about this woman who was one of the four plaintiffs in the case that went before the Supreme Court.
Jo Ann Robinson (woman of consequence)
Jo Ann Robinson, an English professor at Alabama State College, was President of the Women’s Political Council (WPC) of Montgomery, Alabama a group advocating Equal Rights. She had been humiliated by the racist and abusive actions of a Montgomery city bus driver Christmastime in 1949 and resolved to target unfair seating practices of the city’s buses. In May 1954, just days after the Supreme Court’s decision of Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas and eighteen months prior to Rosa Parks’ arrest, Robinson wrote a letter as President of the WPC to the mayor of Montgomery gently threatening a bus boycott if abuses did not stop. She became a leader in the Montgomery Improvement Association, formed to organize the boycott but remained in the background to protect her teaching position. Her memoir of the boycott “Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It” was published in 1987. It is also available in Kindle format.
We owe these brave female warriors a debt of gratitude.
Rosa Parks-No More Mrs. Santa Claus
Rosa Parks, born in Tuskegee, Alabama on February 4, 1913, is remembered as the Black seamstress who refused to give her seat on a Montgomery bus on December 1, 1955. Few other details of her life are well known. Rosa was born Rosa Louise McCauley. Her mother, Leona, was a schoolteacher. She was named for her mother’s mother, Rose and her father’s mother, Louise. Her father was gone for most of her childhood and teen years, wandering off to other parts of the South and eventually New York to find work. Her mother went to live with Rosa’s grandparents. Her maternal grandfather was the product of a slave owner’s son and a slave. He had fair features but, as a result of mistreatment as a child, held a hatred for White people. He talked about them behind their backs. He refused to let the women in his family work in White households.
Rosa saw Black soldiers returning from World War I who felt that they deserved equal rights. This was unacceptable in the Jim Crow South and the summer of 1919 became known as Red Summer as Whites rioted and reasserted their rights.
Her grandfather, a staunch believer in self-defense became a supporter of Marcus Garvey and his pan-Africanist Universal Negro Improvement Association. Marcus Garvey came to Alabama in 923. Her grandfather was rejected for membership in Garvey’s organization because he appeared too White.
Her mother admired Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. She taught Rosa how to read at an early age. Unfortunately one of the earliest books she encountered was titled “Is the Negro a Beast”, a rebuttal to a previous book, “The Negro a Beast”. While attempting to counter the beast argument the book still held the belief that the Negro was inferior. Dismayed, the eight-year-old Rosa Parks found it hard to digest this type of hatred. It wasn’t until she was exposed to black history in high school that she felt that she could build an argument of racial identity based on a pride of accomplishment. She learned that the idea of black rebellion was not crazy. She became an advocate of learning Black history. Education was a precious thing. Education was also a dangerous thing as whites burned several black schools in the area.
Rosa had an inner struggle against the strong pressure to be docile around white people in order to survive in Alabama. Once after being taunted by a white boy, she picked up a brick and threatened him. Her mother cautioned against being “too high-strung”.
Mrs. Parks had been thrown off the same bus a decade earlier by the same driver. She had been working with the NAACP for more than a decade prior to her arrest. She was documenting brutality against African-Americans. Her personal hero was Malcolm X. Sadly, much of the story of Rosa Parks is told in cuddly fashion in children’s books. We dismiss the full human story of this remarkable woman.
Rosa Parks’ grandfather was a follower of Marcus Garvey. Her husband worked to free the Scottsboro Boys when they were newlyweds. After arriving in Detroit in 1957, she fought racial injustice in the Jim Crow North. In 1965, she was hired to be on the Detroit staff of newly elected Congressman John Conyers. She was not the quiet little mouse depicted by news agencies.
Parks joined the NAACP in 1943. The Montgomery branch allowed fuller participation of women in the organization. She became Montgomery chapter secretary. Along with Montgomery chapter President Edgar Daniel “E.D” Nixon, Parks worked to make the Montgomery NAACP branch more activists in nature. They documented and protested White brutality and lynching. The two pushed for school desegregation. This was extremely dangerous wok.
Parks viewed Malcolm X’s principal of self-defense as a central strategy According to a new book, “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” by Jeanne Theoharis. Park’s wrote a letter in her own hand that tells of an attempted sexual assault by a White male employer when she was working as a domestic. Parks detailed her then hatred of all Whites because of the discrimination she faced. An integrated workshop that she attended, Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School, a center for training activists for worker and racial equality, that she attended prior to the boycott, helped suggest to her that we could live as a unified society. The school was located in Monteagle, Tennessee. Parks wanted equal opportunity more than she wanted pure integration.
As noted above, the case that went to the Supreme Court was Browder vs. Gayle. The plaintiffs were Aurelia S. Browder, Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith and Sue Robinson. All had been arrested before December 1, 1955. Rosa Parks was charged with disorderly conduct rather than disobeying segregation laws and her case could have ended up in a legal quagmire, so the lawyers when with cases that focused on segregated seating on buses.
Rosa Parks remained armed for self-protection during the bus boycott. She was not a “turn-the other-cheek” style Christian.
Parks and her husband lost their jobs and moved to Detroit eight months after the Montgomery boycott ended. Parks and her husband continued to receive death threats even after the protest ended. She was fired from her job as a seamstress at a local department store. The couple moved to Detroit where her brother lived to start over. She viewed Detroit as “The Promised Land That Wasn’t.” Parks felt that race relations were not much different in Detroit than Montgomery. She challenged discrimination in schools, housing and jobs in Detroit.
Parks is far more than the candy-coated icon the media presents. She was ridiculed in the movie in the movie “Barbershop” as a tired Black woman who was just a secretary for the NAACP and that was the only reason she gained prominence. A Slate article at the time lamented that Parks and not Claudette Colvin was used as the symbol of the boycott. Slate agreed with the point of the movie’s joke. Al Sharpton and other activists felt that the movie crossed a line.
Parks was the face of the boycott protest mainly because of a history of hard work with the NAACP. She faced threats of physical harm for her efforts. The idea of her just being a tired Black woman who was to lazy to give up her bus seat is fiction and a disgrace.
Satire is free speech. Pointing that the satire misfired is free speech. The sacrifices of Rosa Parks should be properly remembered.
Arrest and Aftermath Timeline
May 1954 Jo Ann Robinson writes a letter to Montgomery mayor
Letter requests an end to racial abuse on bus lines
Letter suggests that a boycott could occur
March 2, 1955 Claudette Colvin arrested for refusing to relinquish seat
April 1955 Aurelia S. Browder arrested for not giving up her seat
October 21, 1955 Mary Louise Smith arrested for not giving up her seat
December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks arrested for refusing to relinquish seat
December 5, 1955 Parks stands trial
Parks convicted of Disorderly Conduct
Parks attends first meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association
Martin Luther King Jr. elected leader of the organization
Montgomery Bus Boycott begins
February 1, 1956 Browder v Gayle filed with the Alabama Middle District Court
(Apparently case structured so that a 3 judge panel could hear the case)
February 26. 1956 Parks indicted with 89 others for boycotting buses
June 19, 1956 Alabama Middle District Court rules bus discrimination unconstitutional
Mayor Gayle appeals to Supreme Court
November 13, 1956 US Supreme Court rules bus discrimination unconstitutional
December 20, 1956 US Supreme Court refuses to hear local and state appeals
US Supreme Court orders integration of buses
December 21, 1956 Montgomery, Alabama buses are fully integrated
Montgomery Bus Boycott ends after 381 days
1957 Rosa Parks moves to Detroit with her husband after both lose their jobs
You can read about Rosa Parks in her own words in “Rosa Parks, My Story” by Rosa Parks and Jim Haskins.
Historian Douglas Brinkley interprets Rosa Parks’ life in the un-footnoted, pocket-sized “Rosa Parks: A Life”.
The radical nature of Rosa Parks is truly fleshed out in the aforementioned “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.”
Martin Luther King Jr. tells his view of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in “Stride Toward Freedom The Montgomery Story”
The Rosa Parks Montgomery city bus is in the Henry Ford Museum