When Rosa Parks died Oct. 24, the news spread quickly. Although the myth persisted in some quarters that Parks’ famous refusal to move to the back of the bus in segregated Montgomery, Ala., in December 1955 happened because she was just a tired old Negro lady, most people understood that hers was an act of civil disobedience.
What they did not say, however, was that such an act had a long tradition preceding it and that Rosa Parks was surrounded by a community of people who not only supported but encouraged what she did.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church, where Parks worshipped, had a long history of activism, stretching back to the abolitionist movement of the 19th century and embodied in the legacy of the church’s famous member Harriet Tubman. From that time, too, came examples of black women standing up to racial segregation, particularly in relation to public transportation facilities: Sojourner Truth on the Washington, D.C., streetcars in 1864; Mary Ellen Pleasant on San Francisco’s streetcars in 1866; and Ida B. Wells on Tennessee trains in the 1880s.
A Civil Rights Warrior
Parks was a 42-year-old warrior following in those footsteps. Around her were people who not only knew their history, but had been opposing racism for decades in school segregation, lynching, job discrimination and obstacles to voting.
Raymond Parks, Rosa’s husband, had been a founding member of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which was constantly under surveillance and continually harassed. She had braved dangers to register voters and walked up many flights of stairs rather than use the “Negro only” elevators where she worked.
Parks’ community included white activists Virginia and Clifford Durr, who would later act as her lawyer and bail her out of jail. Earlier that year Septima Clark–already famous for starting “citizen schools” across the South to help people pass the literacy test for voting–had come to Montgomery and inspired several black women, Parks among them, to go to the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Highlander’s workshops taught strategies for social action.
Ella Baker, also Highlander-trained, came to work on the bus boycott that Parks’ action ignited and later become the bedrock of the “new” civil rights movement, first in the Southern Christian Leadership Council and then with students conducting sit-ins across the South.
Living as she did in such politically sophisticated company, Parks well knew the consequences of defying the bus driver and the police who were called to remove her. Local activists had been looking for an opportunity to challenge the segregation practices in Montgomery and considered organizing after two earlier instances when black women refused to move to the back of the bus.
Unlike the earlier two, Rosa Parks–a married, “respectable,” soft-spoken, deeply religious woman–was perfect.
Like those who came before her, Rosa Parks paid for her courage. By 1957, she and her husband had lost their jobs and the South was dangerous for them. In Detroit, she eventually went to work for Congressman John Conyers.
Although she lived as a legend and continued to stand up against racism, she struggled financially in later years, relying on a church to pay her rent until her landlord decided to let the legend live rent-free. All that, too, is part of a long tradition.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” To contact her, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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