Fifty-five years ago, the boycott of segregated public buses in Montgomery, Alabama began, spurred by Rosa Parks’s refusal to move to the back of a segregated Alabama bus. Her defiance of Jim Crow launched a movement that continues to change the world. What spurred this supposedly solitary and spontaneous act of rebellion? According to popular myth and many textbooks, her tired feet kicked off the civil rights movement.
The latest rendition of this nonsense comes at the end of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s stunning Broadway show, The Scottsboro Boys. The Parks character, played by Sharon Washington, refuses when a white bus driver tells her to move to the rear. I just wanted to “rest my feet,” the character says.
Audience members quickly realize this pretext masks something deeper and still more defiant, since Kander and Ebb present “Parks” as a silent witness to the brutal treatment of nine young black men falsely convicted of raping two white women on a freight train in Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931. It is that history of racial and sexual violence, Kander and Ebb suggest, that led Rosa Parks to her iconic moment on the bus in 1955.
Though it flirts with the myth, The Scottsboro Boys gets the history (nearly) right. Rosa Parks began her political career in the early 1930s as a militant activist, not a silent witness, around issues of interracial sexual violence. She and her husband, Raymond, joined other black activists in secret meetings to raise money for the Scottsboro youths’ defense. They sat around a card table covered with guns, plotting to save the young men from Alabama’s electric chair.
“This was the first time I’d seen so few men with so many guns,” Parks remembered fondly, noting with resentment that “black men could not hold meetings without fear of bodily injury and death.” When the last of the nine defendants walked out of prison in 1950, Scottsboro symbolized Southern injustice and Montgomery was marching toward the history books.
Beginning in 1944 — when Martin Luther King, Jr. was in high school in Atlanta — Parks and her allies in Montgomery used the networks they had stitched together during the Scottsboro case to protect black women from the commonplace sexual assaults perpetrated by white men. When a carload of white men in Abbeville, Alabama, kidnapped and gang-raped Recy Taylor, a black mother and sharecropper in 1944, the NAACP sent Rosa Parks to investigate. Parks organized the “Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor,” which launched an international movement that the Chicago Defender called the “strongest campaign for equal justice in a decade.”
The Montgomery Improvement Association, which elevated Dr. King and nonviolent direct action to worldwide fame, was a direct outgrowth of this committee, which never had the chance to disband.
In 1949, Parks and other activists rallied around a black woman raped by two white Montgomery police officers. Their protests secured a trial and kept the story in the newspapers for nearly two months.
In 1951, Parks helped mobilize the same networks in the successful boycott of a grocery store, after the white owner raped a black teenager. Such victories were rare.
In 1952, Parks labored unsuccessfully to free Jeremiah Reeves, a black teenager sentenced to die for allegedly raping a white woman. Parks and the Montgomery NAACP, certain that the accuser and the accused had a consensual relationship, challenged Reeve’s case all the way to the Supreme Court, but Alabama officials executed Reeves in 1957. “It was a tragedy he lost his life,” Parks said. ” Sometimes it was very difficult to keep going when all our work seemed to be in vain.”
But Parks kept fighting. In 1954, the Women’s Political Council — middle-class black women in Montgomery who came together partly to protest interracial sexual violence – threatened a bus boycott after scores of black women testified about being mistreated on the buses. They complained that white bus drivers hurled sexualized insults at them, sexually harassed them at bus stops, and touched them inappropriately.
For working-class black women like Parks who made up 90 percent of the passengers, riding the bus was a baneful experience. Mistreatment on the buses, she argued, emphasized that “our existence was for the white man’s comfort and well-being; we had to accept being deprived of just being human.”
Like the thousands of other black women fed up with abuse on the buses, Parks resisted. Her decision to stay put that fateful day was rooted in more than a decade of activism with the NAACP, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and the Women’s Political Council, and other groups.
Those labors placed her at the front of Montgomery’s black freedom struggle well before the bus driver tried to put her at the back of the bus. Foot fatigue played no part. “The only tired I was,” Parks said in 1956, “was tired of being pushed around.”
On this 55th anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott, perhaps we can finally end the myth of Parks as a simple seamstress whose tired feet made her tiptoe into history. Instead, we should honor Parks as a radical activist, whose work on behalf of victims of racial brutality and sexual violence helped lay the foundation for not only the bus boycott, but also the modern civil rights movement.
AT THE DARK END OF THE STREET: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (Knopf, September 2010) by Danielle L. McGuire is a groundbreaking new work of history that reinterprets the Civil Rights Movement in terms of the sexualized violence and rape that marked race relations in America for centuries. Please visit www.atthedarkendofthestreet.com for more information.