Rosa Parks is one of the most familiar yet least known figures in the history of the civil rights movement. She was the woman who sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the first successful mass protest of the modern movement.
On December 1, 1955, Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a city bus and subsequent arrest resulted in a boycott led by a previously unknown, local minister, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Parks’ arrest and the community-driven protest that followed drew national and international media attention and led to the desegregation of Montgomery’s buses in December of 1956, making Parks an icon of the movement.
Mischaracterized as a simple woman who chose not to stand because she had tired feet, often Parks’ long history of activism is erased from our collective consciousness. Parks served as an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People beginning in the early 1940s, working on a voter registration campaign, leading the local NAACP Youth Council, and attending a leadership conference organized by civil rights visionary, Ella Baker.
It would be Parks’ work as a young activist in the NAACP that would lead her to investigate a horrible incident of abduction and rape that had taken place in her hometown of Abbeville, Alabama.
A recent historical study, Danielle McGuire’s At the Dark End of the Street, details how Parks risked her own life to spearhead a movement on behalf of Recy Taylor, a young African American wife, mother, and sharecropper who had been seized by seven white men and raped at gunpoint in 1944.
Although local authorities would refuse to indict anyone for the crime, this case would animate Parks’ quest for justice.
Just weeks before her arrest, Parks attended a workshop at the Highlander Folk School, an egalitarian, interracial institution founded in the nineteen-thirties as a training ground for union activists, which became an important center for civil rights activists. At the workshop, attendees were asked to think about what they could do as individuals to challenge the inequalities faced by African Americans in the South. Parks found her answer on Montgomery’s segregated buses just a few weeks later.
The majority of blacks in Montgomery had witnessed or personally been harassed on the buses like Parks had been that day in 1955. The city code segregated buses by race, not only preventing black passengers from sitting next to or across the aisle from white, it also required black passengers to pay their fares at the front of the bus, disembark, and then enter at the back door. Hostile white male bus drivers would not only verbally harass black passengers; also they would frequently drive away before black passengers could reach the second set of doors.
So when news of the arrest of Rosa Parks swept through black Montgomery, the protest waged in her name received a groundswell of support from all sectors of the community. Despite the hardships of walking great distances and facing white violence and harassment, the protest was groundbreaking.
Parks’ status as a respected woman within the community was crucial to the success of the movement. Just a few months prior to the December arrest, a young black woman named Claudette Colvin was also arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus. However local community leaders decided that Colvin, an unwed, pregnant teen, was not an appropriate figure to be at the center of a protest. Parks’ status as a respectable, middle class woman meant that her case would be treated differently.
Historically, “respectable” black women had been the most effective warriors in the fight against the illogical practice of racial segregation. It was hard to argue that whites needed protection from black women passengers, the same women who cleaned white homes, sewed clothing for white patrons, and watched white children. But Parks highlighted the dangers black women faced at the hand of brutal bus drivers and inequitable segregation laws. In many ways, a woman was best suited for the job.
So as we remember Rosa Parks and the victory of the Montgomery boycott on this day, let’s not focus on her tired feet, let’s remember her as a tireless advocate for justice.