Today, December 1st marks the 59th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ arrest for refusing to give her seat on a bus to a White man. With that bold move Mrs. Parks became the icon of the modern Civil Rights Movement. And, like most icons we have sanitized and distorted not just the incident but also the person. The story we tell children in our classrooms is that Mrs. Parks was a “tired seamstress” who just didn’t have the energy to get up and move and it was her tiredness that kept her rooted in that seat. Oh she was tired all right. Tired of the b.s. that made daily living in a city like Montgomery, AL in 1955 intolerable for a Black woman. But more than being tired of racism, Mrs. Parks was a warrior and like all good warriors she had carefully prepared for this moment.
Rosa Parks was the FIRST woman to join the Montgomery NAACP and was its secretary for many years. She worked with Black youth in the NAACP and with E.D. Nixon of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. She took a youth group in Montgomery to see the 1954 traveling exhibit of the Declaration of Independence on the Freedom Train. Because it was a federal exhibit it could not be segregated. It was the first time many of the Black youth were in an environment with White youth. Civil Rights was Rosa Parks work, being a seamstress was her job. She never got the two twisted.
Rosa Parks attended the Highlander Folk School where she learned more about civil disobedience and helping Black people obtain their full citizenship rights. But even on the day of the infamous incident Mrs. Parks was not disobeying the racist law. She was sitting in the “colored section” of the bus but there were no more seats in the White section. And, in her own words, she hadn’t moved in some time and she thought it was ridiculous to have to go to the front of the bus to pay, get off, and then enter the back of the bus.
Rosa Parks had trouble with bus drivers over the years. She had been evicted from buses before. What made this December 1, 1955 incident the memorable one is that the bus driver called the police and she was arrested. Rosa Parks was not an isolated case. In the months prior to her arrest at least 3 other Black people in Montgomery had been arrested for refusing to give up their seats to Whites. In each case the NAACP investigated the background of the person who was arrested to determine if they would be a good model around which to build a civil rights case. Mrs. Parks had the respect of the community and the strength to withstand all of the publicity that would come with making her the catalyst for a massive bus boycott.
Today, Mrs. Parks statue is the only one of an African American woman to adorn the US Capitol Rotunda. But in between the time of the bus arrest and being enshrined in the Capitol Mrs. Parks had her share of struggles. She lost her job in the department store, her husband was forced to quit his job and the family moved to Hampton, VA where she worked at Hampton University (then, Institute). From there the couple moved to Detroit to join some of Mrs. Parks relatives. One by one, everyone close to her succumbed to disease and death–her husband, her siblings, and her mother. However, the biggest insult was a break-in and assault by a neighborhood drug addict who recognized who she was (after he broke in) and still proceeded to rob her and strike her.
I think of Mrs. Parks in the midst of the Ferguson, MO protests and debates. Although she was a highly sought after speaker she never got rich. She regularly gave away money from speeches and books to civil rights causes because she believed deeply in the dignity of every human being and the right of African Americans to enjoy the full benefits of citizenship. I think she would stand on the side of those who are protesting the wanton shooting of Black people by those who are supposed to serve and protect. I think she would stand on the side of people who are calling for an end to racial profiling. I think, in her quiet and dignified way, she would stand (or perhaps sit) her ground to assert her right to be treated as a human being. That’s what I think Rosa Parks would do!
Stay Black & Smart!