(WOMENSENEWS)–Although most history books portray Rosa Parks as just a tired old Negro lady whose feet hurt too much for her to move, she was actually a 42-year-old warrior. Born on Feb. 4, 1913, she had seen her share of misery, humiliation and violence in the Jim Crow South. But she had also seen resistance, strongly rooted in religion, local politics and women’s community networks.
In December 1955, when she made her mark by refusing to relinquish her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., city bus for a white person, Rosa Parks was already a veteran civil rights activist. Her fellow congregants in the African Methodist Episcopal church were like-minded, non-violent anti-segregationists. Her husband was a charter member of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, known now as the NAACP, and she had not only joined the group, which was constantly watched and harassed, but become its secretary. She had done (dangerous) voter registration in her community and would walk up the stairs of a building rather than ride in a “Negroes only” elevator.
So Rosa Parks was no naif. When first the bus driver and then the police officer stood over her, she knew what would happen if she resisted and was happy to be the catalyst for an action that had been brewing for some time. The Women’s Political Council and the NAACP were eager for a case that could be used to test the segregation laws. Parks delivered it.
Within hours of her arrest, the women’s group had organized a protest, urging a bus boycott. Only later did leadership of the successful, headline-making boycott fall into the hands of the new minister in town, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
She fled north for safety and from Detroit, where for almost half a century, has continued to be “the mother of the civil rights movement.”
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.”