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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 courage of Rosa Parks’ arrest

On December 1, 1955, a distracted Rosa Parks got on the Cleveland Avenue bus with James F. Blake, the same operator who had mistreated her in 1943. Parks knew well the risk she took in protesting on the bus. On August 12, 1950, Brooks, an African-American veteran of World War II and neighbor of the Parks family, tried to board a bus, but the bus driver C.L. Hood alleged he was too drunk to ride. When Brooks protested, the bus driver waved down a police officer, M.E. Mills, while pushing Brooks off the bus. As Brooks struggled to get up, the police officer shot him dead. The officer was cleared of all wrongdoing.

“I did not want to be continually humiliated over something I had no control over: the color of my skin.”

When Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, she had twelve years of her NAACP investigator’s notes on nearly every case of racial brutality in and around Montgomery. There was no way to be without fear, but she “held herself steady” as the arrest occurred.

Learning of the arrest, the WPC sprang into action. Jo Ann Robinson and two of her student assistants met in the basement of Alabama State University and copied, cut, and bundled 52,500 flyers, which read, in part:

Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown in jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus for a white person to sit down. It is the second time since the Claudette Colvin case that a Negro woman has been arrested for the same thing. This has to be stopped. Negroes have rights, too, for if Negroes did not ride the buses, they could not operate. Three-fourths of the riders are Negroes, yet we are arrested, or have to stand over empty seats. If we do not do something to stop these arrests, they will continue. The next time it may be you, or your daughter or mother. This woman’s case will come up on Monday. We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don’t ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday … Please stay off all buses Monday.

Rosa Parks’ arrest became a transformative moment in human history.

“I was determined to achieve the total freedom that our history lessons taught us we were entitled to, no matter what the sacrifice,” she recalled in her autobiography. “When I declined to give up my seat, it was not that day, or bus, in particular. I just wanted to be free like everybody else. I did not want to be continually humiliated over something I had no control over: the color of my skin.”

By the evening that day, Rosa Parks, Raymond Parks, her attorneys Fred Gray and Clifford Durr, the NAACP’s E.D Nixon, and Virginia Durr were all brainstorming. They decided that Rosa Parks would challenge, with courage in the face of her own fears, Montgomery’s bus segregation ordinance on constitutional grounds. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund would support the suit, if necessary. With reason, Raymond Parks was fearful of his wife taking such a prominent role in a social justice movement.

History records a mass mobilization of community forces around the Montgomery bus boycott. The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was born, a coalition of civil rights organizations, churches, labor, WPC, NAACP, and black bus-riding citizens. Women held down the day-to-day work of the MIA, though most of the officers were prominent men, including the elected president, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Stalwarts of the MIA included Hazel Gregory, Maude Ballou, Erna Dungy, and Martha Johnson, to name just a few. White supporters Virginia Durr and Clara Hard Rutledge built support for the bus boycott with Montgomery’s white citizens.

The backbone of the ridership consisted of low-income domestic workers, cooks, nurses, and maids. Without their support and organizational involvement, the bus boycott could not have been a success.

The WPC members became a part of the MIA as well, with Jo Ann Robinson starting a newsletter for the new group, which proved a crucial organizing tool and became part of the success of this people’s movement.

The road to victory

The MIA also organized an alternative transportation system, which was one of the keys to the bus boycott’s success. The boycott affected the entire city, and the MIA tried to cover every need. With few exceptions, the rides were free. However, a fee was charged for rides to or from areas beyond the normal limits of the city bus lines. According to Robinson’s book, each day throughout the boycott some 325 private cars picked up passengers from 43 dispatch stations and 42 pickup stations.

Though the MIA first sought to negotiate with the city leaders, it became clear no compromise could be reached with them. Indeed, the White Citizens Council grew along with the boycott, employing tactics of violence and arrest of black passengers waiting for a drive to their destination. Violence was also targeted at the leaders of the MIA, including the firebombing of the homes of Dr. King and E.D. Nixon. Others received repeated threats.

One hundred and fifteen of the boycott leaders were arrested—including Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and Jo Ann Robinson, based on the decision of a grand jury of seventeen whites on February 21, 1956. The arrests were reversed only after an appeal to a three-judge federal court in June  1956.

Yet the catalyst for change had already occurred.

On December 17, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Montgomery’s unequal busing laws unconstitutional in Browder v Gayle. But Montgomery and its leadership, intransigent in its refusal to give up its unequal laws, refused to follow the Court’s edict until federal marshals enforced it on December 20, 1956.

Rosa L. Parks and thousands of other citizens made the Montgomery Bus boycott a profound example of a successful people’s movement.

Grace Lee Boggs has been an activist for more than 60 years and is the author of the autobiography Living for Change. Civil rights attorney Alice Jennings is a co-founder of the Rosa and Raymond Parks Endowment Trust and of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership. In 2009, the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) created the Rosa Parks and Grace Lee Boggs Award for Outstanding Service.


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