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Rosa Parks, Champion for Human Rights

On Rosa Parks’ 100th birthday, she’s broadly celebrated and even has a stamp bearing her image. But her radical life story is too often left untold.
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The women’s political council

In 1946, Mary Fair Burkes, a member of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where the radical civil rights activist Vernon Johns was minister, created the Women’s Political Council. (WPC). Many of the WPC Members were women faculty at Alabama State College, as was Burkes herself. Burkes had been attacked by a “club wielding police officer.” Many of the women of the WPC had stories of brutal racial treatment by Montgomery’s police, bus drivers, and white citizens. The WPC eventually had over 300 women members, according to journalist Juan Williams.

Other inequalities blacks experienced while riding the bus included a requirement that “negro” passengers pay at the front of the bus and then go to the back and re-board

In 1950, Burkes turned the leadership of the WPC over to Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, a colleague at Alabama State College. Robinson had also been the victim of a vicious verbal attack by a Montgomery bus driver, who stood over her and pulled his arm back as if to strike her. Stumbling off the bus, Jo Ann Robinson was crying and recalls being “inundated” by “waves of humiliation.”

In her book about the bus boycott, Robinson describes daily and brutal insults against the black citizens of Montgomery, including physical beatings, assaults, wrongful arrests for disorderly conduct, verbal degradation with obscene language, financial fines, and the death by shooting of Rosa Parks’ neighbor, a veteran known as Brooks. Other inequalities blacks experienced while riding the bus included limitations on service and a requirement that “negro” passengers pay at the front of the bus and then go to the back and re-board, leading to injuries or a slammed door, even though the rider had paid.

Robinson points out the unequal racial treatment on Montgomery buses, which led to the abuse and arrest of Rosa Parks and many others:

The front ten double seats on each bus (out of a total seating for thirty-six) were reserved for whites, whether there were enough whites riding the bus to occupy them or not. Even when no whites were aboard, those seats were reserved, just in case one or two did ride. In many instances black riders had to stand over those empty seats. Since about 70 percent of all bus patrons were black, especially on certain buses and in certain areas, it seemed to many riders that the reservation of seats was unnecessary.

The day-to-day injustices and emotional trauma on Montgomery buses led to community conflict, including domestic violence, juvenile delinquency, and dependency abuses. Jo Ann Robinson recalls that, “In 1956, the superintendent of a local hospital, which customarily treated many weekend fight victims, told a reporter that since the boycott began, the hospital had had fewer patients.”

The WPC, led by Robinson, received more than 30 complaints against the Montgomery City Lines bus company, with some going as far back as 1953.

From 1950 to 1955, Robinson worked with other activist women, including A.W. West, N.W. Burkes, J.E. Pierce, Georgia Gilmore, Edwyna Marketta, Ella Mae Stovell, Lettie M. Anderson, Horace Burton, Ruby Hall, and Ella Mae Henderson. These were only some of those who took up the cause of abuses on the city’s buses, in addition to the “shameful and deplorable one-sidedness” of the city’s segregated parks and recreation systems. As Mary Fair Burkes pointed out, “We were not fighting segregation, as much as abuses of Negroes.”

In May 21, 1954, Robinson sent a letter to Mayor W.A. “Tacky” Gayle, stating a warning. Since “three-fourths of the riders of these public conveyances are Negros,” she wrote, “if Negros did not patronize them, [the buses] could not possibly operate. More and more our people are already arranging with neighbors and friends to ride to keep from being insulted and humiliated by bus drivers.”

While neither Colvin nor Smith received the publicity that Rosa Parks did, both are now recognized in history as champions of change.

In March 1955, Robinson writes, the WPC was brought into public action after Claudette Colvin, a 10th-grader at Booker T. Washington High School, was physically removed, dragged, and pushed, then arrested from a Montgomery bus by a Montgomery police officer, who called the teenager a “black whore.”

The community responded to Claudette Colvin’s arrest by organizing the Citizen’s Coordinating Committee. After meeting with the police commission and the manager of the bus company, nothing was done, though the committee was able to show dozens of complaints filed by citizens with the WPC and other organizations. Claudette Colvin was found guilty of assault and battery and of violating state segregation laws. She was sentenced to “indefinite probation” and declared a juvenile delinquent.

In October 1955, Louise Smith, an eighteen-year-old maid, refused to move to the colored section. “I am not going to move,” she said, “I got the privilege to sit here like anybody else.” Though the NAACP met with her family through E. D. Nixon and WPC, again the decision was made not to make a constitutional challenge with Ms. Smith as the lead Plaintiff.

The cases of Claudette Colvin and Louise Smith were eventually selected as part of a class action lawsuit, which later formed the basis of the U.S Supreme Court’s ruling that struck down Montgomery’s segregations laws. While neither Colvin nor Smith received the publicity that Rosa Parks did while these events were occurring, both are now recognized in history as champions of change. The intense work around the Colvin and Smith cases primed Montgomery and the world for the visionary organizing of the 13-month bus boycott that would begin months later, on December 1, 1955.

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