‘My life’s mission has been simple — that all men and women are created equal under the eyes of our Lord,” wrote US civil rights activist Rosa Parks. Rosa died two weeks ago, aged 92.
On 1 December 1955 her courageous refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, was the catalyst for a successful 381-day bus boycott. This campaign was also led by Martin Luther King. It led to the US supreme court ruling that the segregation of buses was unconstitutional.
Rosa’s stand has been heralded as the beginning of the US civil rights movement. Black people in the US faced extraordinary discrimination, particularly in the South where segregation, and racist politicians, dominated the scene. Many black people were not allowed to vote because of the racist Jim Crow laws.
Rosa Parks is usually falsely portrayed as a simple, uneducated, middle aged woman, who was simply too tired to move from her seat on her way home from work one day.
According to this myth she was an unwitting participant, caught up in events and unaware of the political implications of her actions.
This romanticised version of events denies Rosa Parks’ intelligence, past and her politics.
Rosa McCauley was born on 14 February 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama in the south of the US. She was an incredible woman. Her mother Leona Edwards was a schoolteacher and her father James McCauley a carpenter and a stonemason. Her grandparents largely raised her.
Her great grandfather had been a white plantation owner. Rosa wrote, “My grandfather, sometimes people took him for white. My grandfather was the one who instilled in my mother and her sisters, and their children, that you don’t put up with bad treatment from anybody.”
The white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan was re-emerging across the US South as she grew up.
Rosa describes how “the Ku Klux Klan was riding through the black community, burning churches, beating up people, killing people.
“At the time I didn’t realise why there was so much Klan activity, but later I learned that it was because the African American soldiers were returning from the First World War and acting as if they deserved equal rights because they had served their country.
“I remember we talked about how just in case the Klansmen broke into our house, we should go to bed with our clothes on so we would be ready to run if we had to.”
The church was an important part of Rosa’s life. “From my upbringing and the Bible I learned people should stand up for rights,” she said, “just as the children of Israel stood up to the Pharaoh.”
Rosa was brought up in the American Methodist Episcopal Church and remained a devout member throughout her life. The church played an important part of life in the Deep South, and her church had been campaigning for rights for black people throughout its history.
A belief in god helped give courage and hope to many activists such as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and many others. Churches provided practical support such as providing meeting places and networking for activists.
Schooled while working part time picking cotton, she made it to college, which was unusual for a young black woman at that time. But she had to leave to look after her sick grandmother and then her sick mother. She met Raymond Parks when she was 18.
She wrote of him, “I was very impressed by the fact that he didn’t seem to have that meek attitude — what we called an ‘Uncle Tom’ attitude — towards white people. Parks was also the first real activist I ever met.”
They married in December 1932. He encouraged her to finish college, and she went on to work as a seamstress in a large department store, where she also joined the union.
She joined the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and became the secretary for its Montgomery organiser, E?D Nixon.
They worked together for years campaigning and trying, person by person, to get black people registered to vote. She went on to take an activist training course at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. This had been set up by left wing activists as an alternative to the mainstream, segregated colleges.
She said, “At Highlander we forgot about what colour anybody was. It was one of the few times in my life up to that point when I did not feel any hostility from white people.
“I experienced people of different races and backgrounds meeting together in workshops and living together in peace and harmony. I felt that I could express myself honestly without any repercussions or antagonistic attitudes to white people.
“It was hard to leave, knowing what I was going back to. So I went back to Montgomery and back to my job at the Montgomery Fair department store, where you had to be smiling and polite no matter how rudely you were treated. And back to the city buses, with their segregation rules.”
The Alabama bus system was segregated by race, with the first ten seats reserved exclusively for white people. The back ten seats were where black people were allowed to sit — provided no white person wanted the seat. The rules relating to the middle 16 seats would vary from bus to bus, depending on the driver.
As black people were seen as “inferior” they were not even permitted to sit on the same level as white people. This meant that when a white person sat down, any black people sat anywhere along that whole row would have to get up and move further down.
Bus drivers were armed with pistols, and bigoted drivers cursed at, spat at, and physically manhandled black passengers. It was on her way to her third attempt to register to vote in 1943, that Rosa Parks boarded the bus of the driver James F Blake.
It was not unusual for drivers to take black passengers’ fares at the front of the bus and then make them get off and re-board at the back, and Blake demanded that Rosa do so. After an argument Rosa was made to leave the bus which drove on before she could re-board, stranding her at the roadside. It was not uncommon for drivers to do this.
This incident made her so angry that she vowed to never board a bus driven by Blake again. It would be 12 years before she boarded his bus again, with dramatic consequences.
The black community encountered this racism everyday. The NAACP had been trying to organise a bus boycott in Montgomery. Most white people used cars, so if black people stopped riding the buses the bus company would not be able to survive financially.
On 1 December 1955 there was only one white man unseated, but for him to sit down this would mean the whole row moving so that no black people were siting on the same level as him.
Rosa writes, “[The bus driver Blake] said, ‘Let me have those front seats’, because they were the front seats of the black section. Didn’t anybody move. We just sat right there where we were, the four of us. Then he spoke a second time, ‘Y’all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats.’
“The man in the window seat next to me stood up, and I moved to let him pass by me, and then I looked across the aisle and saw that the two women were also standing. I moved over to the window seat. I could not see how standing up was going to ‘make it light’ for me.
“The more we gave in and complied, the worse they treated us. People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true.
“I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me being old then. I was 42. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.
“The driver of the bus saw me still sitting there, and he asked was I going to stand up. I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Well, I’m going to have you arrested.’
“Then I said, ‘You may do that.’ These were the only words we said to each other. As I sat there, I tried not to think about what might happen. I knew that anything was possible. I could be manhandled or beaten.”
Rosa Parks was arrested, and the news quickly spread. That night Jo Ann Robinson, a professor at the all-black Alabama State College, and a member of the Women’s Political Council (WPC) went with friends to her college and mimeographed leaflets calling for a boycott of the buses.
They then distributed all the leaflets before the next morning. These leaflets were already in people’s hands by the time the black ministers, including Martin Luther King, met to discuss whether to organise a boycott.
Rosa Parks is a visible representative of the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement. The women of the black South were the backbone of this movement, and are all too often hidden from history.
Rosa Parks went on to educate the following generations of black children about the work that they had done. Rosa Parks’ death is a loss to the world.