Rosa Parks: The Real Story
by Ian Sinclair
25 February 2020
In December an exhibition about the life of Rosa Parks opened at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The same month a new statue honouring the civil rights icon was unveiled in Alabama’s state capital, Montgomery.
Taught in schools in the US and UK, mythologised on the left and celebrated across popular culture, from Outkast’s 1998 hip hop single Rosa Parks to the 2018 Doctor Who episode titled Rosa, her story will be very familiar to Morning Star readers.
But do we really know Parks’s story?
Here is US news organisation CNN’s crude take on 1 December 2018: “It was on this day in 1955 when a simple act of defiance elevated a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, into a pivotal symbol in America’s civil rights movement. Parks refused to move to the back of a city bus. Little did the 42-year old know that her act would help end segregation laws in the South.”
This popular understanding of Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott she triggered is only “half true”, Noam Chomsky argues in the 2002 book Understanding Power. “What’s in history is one person had the courage to do something – which she did”. But, the US dissident notes, “nobody does anything on their own. Rosa Parks came out of an organised community of committed people.”
Indeed, if you read up on the boycott you find “a network of intrepid organizers, situated in overlapping black institutions” in early 50s Montgomery, as Stewart Burns explains in his 1997 book Daybreak Of Freedom: The Montgomery Bus Boycott.
These included the Women’s Political Council (led by English professor Jo Ann Robinson), the Citizen’s Coordinating Committee and the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). A key figure was E. D. Nixon, the head of the Alabama region of the African American labour organisation the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. He had also been the president of Montgomery’s NAACP branch from 1946-50.
Parks herself was not just a seamstress, but “a civil rights activist of long standing”, according to Burns. She was the secretary of the Montgomery and Alabama chapter of the NAACP. In 1944 the NAACP had sent Parks to Abbeville, Alabama to investigate the gang rape of 24-year-old African American woman Recy Taylor. And a few months before she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, Parks had attended a school desegregation workshop at the influential Highlander folk school in Tennessee.
Though Parks had not planned her famous act of resistance on 1 December, some of the local black leaders were primed for action. “We had planned the boycott long before Mrs. Parks was arrested”, Robinson admitted later, according to David Garrow’s 1986 Bearing The Cross, his majestic history of Martin Luther King, Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Council. Garrow notes Robinson had written to the mayor of Montgomery in May 1954, explaining that three quarters of the riders on the city buses were black and threatening a boycott.
Like many of the leaders and organisers in the wider civil rights movement that transformed the American South over the next decade, the activists in Montgomery were incredibly smart strategists and tacticians. This is well highlighted by the fact another member of the black community had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus nine months before Parks – 15-year old Claudette Colvin.
This arrest “galvanised Montgomery’s African American community”, Burns notes. Robinson and Nixon thought they might have an ideal test case to challenge segregation. However, problems soon developed. First, Colvin’s had resisted arrest, resulting in her being charged with assault and battery. Second, and likely more important, Robinson and Nixon learned that the young, unmarried Colvin was several months pregnant.
“Both leaders concluded that Colvin would be neither an ideal candidate for symbolizing the abuse heaped upon black passengers nor a good litigant for a test suit certain to generate great pressures and publicity”, Garrow explains. “The black leadership chose not to pursue the case.”
In contrast, Robinson noted “Mrs Parks had the calibre of character we needed to get the city to rally behind us.”
And rally they did. With Parks arrested on a Thursday, Robinson organised the printing of a reported 40,000 leaflets calling for a one-day bus boycott on the following Monday. Aware they needed the help of the black church leaders, Nixon called a 26-year old minister who had arrived in the city just over a year before – Martin Luther King, Jr. “Hesitating at first, King offered his support”, Burns notes. At a mass meeting that evening it was agreed to continue the boycott, with King heading the coordinating organisation, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). It seems King was chosen, in part, because he was new to Montgomery. “He had not been here long enough for the city fathers to put their hand on him”, Dixon relates in the 1987 PBS documentary series Eyes On The Prize.
The boycott “mobilised the entire black population” of Montgomery, Adam Fairclough notes in his 2001 history Better Day Coming: Black and Equality, 1890-2000. “50,000 men, women and children walked to work, gave each other lifts, and even on the coldest, wettest days refused to ride the buses.”
A complex car pool system was put in place by the MIA, with hundreds of volunteers driving private cars to move people around the city, complete with ad hoc pick-up stations and taxi-style dispatchers coordinating the operation.
In parallel with the street mobilisation a legal challenge was also mounted, with local black attorney Fred Gray – representing the MIA and supported by the NAACP – filing a federal lawsuit in February 1956 against segregation on Montgomery’s buses.
Despite strong opposition from city officials the boycott continued, with participants and the movement leadership enduring intimidation, threats, police harassment, legal challenges, trials, prison time and even the bombing of King’s and Nixon’s homes.
Finally, after a series of rulings and appeals, the Supreme Court affirmed its support of integration on Montgomery buses in November 1956. The boycott came to end on 20 December 1956 – an incredible 381 days after it started. Keen to make the transformation as trouble-free as possible the MIA provided advice to black people riding on the newly integrated buses: “be quiet and friendly, proud but not arrogant” and “do not deliberately sit by a white person, unless there is no other seat.”
Placing the boycott in historical context, Burns argues it was “a formative turning point of the twentieth century”.
“Harbinger of the African American freedom movement… springboard for the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr” and the “launching pad for the worldwide era of upheaval known as ‘the sixties’”.
The boycott also provides a number of valuable lessons for those working for progressive change today. First, it shows mass nonviolent direct action – combined with a successful legal challenge, in this instance – can be very effective against established power.
Second, it illuminates the nature of the relationship between leaders and the wider movement. “Martin Luther King was an important person, but I do not think that he was a big agent of change”, Chomsky argues. “In fact, I think Martin Luther King was able to play a role in bringing about change only because the real agents of change were doing a lot of the work.”
Robinson concurs, telling a reporter at the time: “The amazing thing about our movement is that it is a protest of the people. It is not a one man show. It is not the preacher’s show… the leaders couldn’t stop it if they wanted to.”
So, yes, we should celebrate Parks. And the role played by King. But we shouldn’t settle for this simple story. We also need to remember the deep organisational roots of the movement and the crucial role played by what Burns calls “ordinary people acting in extraordinary ways” – people like Robinson, Nixon, Colvin, Gray, and, most importantly, the 50,000 strong black community of Montgomery.
Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.