This Is The Rosa Parks You Probably Don’t Know
Sixty years ago today, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus and was arrested. This seminal event of a tired, nice, old lady is what we think about as an impetus for desegregation. Not much is really told of her story beyond this event though. This is probably why.
The Parks family lived in the Cleveland Courts projects when she made her bus stand. Her husband Raymond was a barber and she was an assistant tailor, altering white men’s clothes at Montgomery Fair Department Store. Her stand plunged them into a decade of economic instability and deep poverty.
Parks grew up in a family that supported Marcus Garvey, and she herself was mentored by legendary organizer Ella Baker. In the 1930s and ’40s, Parks took part in organizing work in defense of the Scottsboro Boys and with E.D. Nixon, a Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters organizer who then became president of Montgomery’s NAACP, in seeking justice for lynching, rape, and assault victims.
In the 1950s, she organized the Youth Council of the Montgomery NAACP. When the Montgomery bus boycott began, Rosa Parks was a seasoned activist of 42. Additionally, as The Nation points out, Parks was not the first person to engage in such an action:
A number of black Montgomerians had resisted segregation on Montgomery’s buses. When Viola White did in 1944, she was beaten and fined $10; her case was still in appeals when she passed away 10 years later. In 1950, police shot and killed Hilliard Brooks, a World War II veteran, when he boarded the bus after having a few drinks and refused to reboard from the back door—and the police were called. Witnesses rebutted the officer’s claims that he acted in self-defense, but he wasn’t prosecuted. Emboldened by the 1954 Brown ruling, the Women’s Political Council had written Montgomery’s mayor that there needed to be change on Montgomery’s buses or the community would boycott. Then on March 2, 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to relinquish her bus seat. When a white rider hollered at her that she had to get up, a young girl, Margaret Johnson, responded in her defense, “She ain’t got to do nothin’ but stay black and die.” Police arrested Colvin and charged her on three counts. The black community was outraged and initially mounted some resistance (Parks served as a fundraiser for Colvin’s case), but ultimately decided against a full-blown campaign on Colvin’s behalf, seeing her as too young, feisty, and emotional. (Despite popular belief, Colvin was not pregnant at the time the community decided not to pursue her case but got pregnant later in the summer.) The impact of these incidents accumulated—and Montgomery’s black community was at a breaking point by December 1955.
Back then, bus drivers carried a gun. Some Montgomery bus drivers would make black people pay in the front, but then force them to get off the bus, and re-board through the back door (so they didn’t even walk by white passengers). Parks had been kicked off the bus a number of times for refusing to abide by this practice, including by the very driver, James Blake, who would have her arrested on that December evening.
Hearing of Parks’s arrest and her decision to pursue her case, the Women’s Political Council called for a one-day boycott the day Parks was to be arraigned in court. Buoyed by the success of that first day, the community at a mass meeting that night decided to extend the boycott. A young Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a galvanizing speech and would emerge as the movement’s leader. A separate federal court case was filed, with Colvin as one of the plaintiffs (Parks was not). Three hundred and eighty-two days later, Montgomery’s buses were desegregated.
Eight months after the boycott’s successful end, still unable to find work and facing death threats, she moved with her husband and mother to Detroit, where she lived for nearly five decades. Between the systems of housing and school segregation, job exclusion, and policing from Montgomery to Detroit being so similar, she set about to challenge the racial inequality of the North, alongside a growing Black Power movement. She attended the 1968 Black Power conference in Philadelphia and the 1972 Political Convention in Gary, and visited the Black Panther Party School in Oakland during the 1979–80 school year.