In a testimonial to other activists, Rosa Parks wrote, “freedom fighters never retire”. And for her, this proved to be true.
Parks was born on 4 February 1913 in Tuskegee Alabama in the deep US south.
She grew up in a time of constant threats of racist violence, when Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation.
After marrying Raymond Parks, himself a committed activist, she joined the Montgomery branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in 1943.
She soon became the secretary of the branch, with E.D. Nixon as its president.
For years Parks campaigned to get black people to have the right to vote and to use it. She also worked to compile civil rights disputes across the country.
A notable case that Parks took on was that of sharecropper Recy Taylor who was gang raped by six white men in 1944. Parks, working with Taylor, made sure the case received national attention.
Throughout this period Parks would have been surrounded by left wing ideas that had radicalised thousands of black workers in the 1930s and 40s. And even though she was never recorded as a member, she took part in Communist Party meetings.
Parks attended activist workshops in the summer of 1955 at the Highlander Folk School based in Tennessee. This was a training ground for civil rights activists.
Months after attending the college, Parks took part in the stand that she is most famous for. On 1 December she refused to give up her seat to a white person when ordered to do so by the bus driver.
This broke segregation laws in Montgomery, Alabama.
Parks later recounted how she felt in that moment.
“When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night.”
The bus driver called the police and Parks was arrested. Her defiance prompted the Montgomery bus boycott, which lasted for 381 days.
The United States supreme court was then forced to order the desegregation of Montgomery and Alabama’s public transport system.
This is celebrated as a seminal event in the civil rights movement.
But the moment is often presented as a spontaneous act of defiance by an old woman who was too tired to move out of her seat.
In reality, the action wasn’t spontaneous and had been planned by the NAACP and the trade union movement.
Parks herself refuted this view of her. She said, “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true.
“I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two.
“The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Parks’ activism continued long after this event and she was also active in the black power movement.
Throughout the 1970s and 80s she relentlessly campaigned for changes to the criminal justice system and for better housing. She did so until her death in 2005.
Like many figures of the civil rights movement, the establishment has tried to present Parks as a respectable face. They say she challenged bigotry but didn’t push too far.
But Parks was a radical who should be remembered as such.
She fought continuously against disenfranchisement, poverty and segregation, and for those whose lives were tarnished by an inherently racist system.
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